Template-directed RNA ligation catalyzed by an RNA enzyme (ribozyme) is a plausible and important reaction that could have been involved in transferring genetic information during prebiotic evolution. Laboratory evolution experiments have yielded several classes of ligase ribozymes, but their minimal sequence requirements remain largely unexplored. Because selection experiments strongly favor highly active sequences, less active but smaller catalytic motifs may have been overlooked in these experiments. We used large-scale DNA synthesis and high-throughput ribozyme assay enabled by deep sequencing to systematically minimize a previously laboratory-evolved ligase ribozyme. After designing and evaluating >10 000 sequences, we identified catalytic cores as small as 18 contiguous bases that catalyze template-directed regiospecific RNA ligation. The fact that such a short sequence can catalyze this critical reaction suggests that similarly simple or even simpler motifs may populate the RNA sequence space which could have been accessible to the prebiotic ribozymes.
© The Author(s) 2019. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Nucleic Acids Research.