Telomerase RNA (TR) is a noncoding RNA essential for the function of telomerase ribonucleoprotein. TRs from vertebrates, fungi, ciliates, and plants exhibit extreme diversity in size, sequence, secondary structure, and biogenesis pathway. However, the evolutionary pathways leading to such unusual diversity among eukaryotic kingdoms remain elusive. Within the metazoan kingdom, the study of TR has been limited to vertebrates and echinoderms. To understand the origin and evolution of TR across the animal kingdom, we employed a phylogeny-guided, structure-based bioinformatics approach to identify 82 novel TRs from eight previously unexplored metazoan phyla, including the basal-branching sponges. Synthetic TRs from two representative species, a hemichordate and a mollusk, reconstitute active telomerase in vitro with their corresponding telomerase reverse transcriptase components, confirming that they are authentic TRs. Comparative analysis shows that three functional domains, template-pseudoknot (T-PK), CR4/5, and box H/ACA, are conserved between vertebrate and the basal metazoan lineages, indicating a monophyletic origin of the animal TRs with a snoRNA-related biogenesis mechanism. Nonetheless, TRs along separate animal lineages evolved with divergent structural elements in the T-PK and CR4/5 domains. For example, TRs from echinoderms and protostomes lack the canonical CR4/5 and have independently evolved functionally equivalent domains with different secondary structures. In the T-PK domain, a P1.1 stem common in most metazoan clades defines the template boundary, which is replaced by a P1-defined boundary in vertebrates. This study provides unprecedented insight into the divergent evolution of detailed TR secondary structures across broad metazoan lineages, revealing ancestral and later-diversified elements.
Keywords: RNA structure; homology search; noncoding RNA; ribonucleoprotein; telomere.
© The Author(s) 2020. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution.