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      Nucleic acids: function and potential for abiogenesis

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          Abstract

          The emergence of functional cooperation between the three main classes of biomolecules – nucleic acids, peptides and lipids – defines life at the molecular level. However, how such mutually interdependent molecular systems emerged from prebiotic chemistry remains a mystery. A key hypothesis, formulated by Crick, Orgel and Woese over 40 year ago, posits that early life must have been simpler. Specifically, it proposed that an early primordial biology lacked proteins and DNA but instead relied on RNA as the key biopolymer responsible not just for genetic information storage and propagation, but also for catalysis, i.e. metabolism. Indeed, there is compelling evidence for such an ‘RNA world’, notably in the structure of the ribosome as a likely molecular fossil from that time. Nevertheless, one might justifiably ask whether RNA alone would be up to the task. From a purely chemical perspective, RNA is a molecule of rather uniform composition with all four bases comprising organic heterocycles of similar size and comparable polarity and pK a values. Thus, RNA molecules cover a much narrower range of steric, electronic and physicochemical properties than, e.g. the 20 amino acid side-chains of proteins. Herein we will examine the functional potential of RNA (and other nucleic acids) with respect to self-replication, catalysis and assembly into simple protocellular entities.

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          Most cited references 262

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          Systematic evolution of ligands by exponential enrichment: RNA ligands to bacteriophage T4 DNA polymerase.

          High-affinity nucleic acid ligands for a protein were isolated by a procedure that depends on alternate cycles of ligand selection from pools of variant sequences and amplification of the bound species. Multiple rounds exponentially enrich the population for the highest affinity species that can be clonally isolated and characterized. In particular one eight-base region of an RNA that interacts with the T4 DNA polymerase was chosen and randomized. Two different sequences were selected by this procedure from the calculated pool of 65,536 species. One is the wild-type sequence found in the bacteriophage mRNA; one is varied from wild type at four positions. The binding constants of these two RNA's to T4 DNA polymerase are equivalent. These protocols with minimal modification can yield high-affinity ligands for any protein that binds nucleic acids as part of its function; high-affinity ligands could conceivably be developed for any target molecule.
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            The structural basis of ribosome activity in peptide bond synthesis.

            Using the atomic structures of the large ribosomal subunit from Haloarcula marismortui and its complexes with two substrate analogs, we establish that the ribosome is a ribozyme and address the catalytic properties of its all-RNA active site. Both substrate analogs are contacted exclusively by conserved ribosomal RNA (rRNA) residues from domain V of 23S rRNA; there are no protein side-chain atoms closer than about 18 angstroms to the peptide bond being synthesized. The mechanism of peptide bond synthesis appears to resemble the reverse of the acylation step in serine proteases, with the base of A2486 (A2451 in Escherichia coli) playing the same general base role as histidine-57 in chymotrypsin. The unusual pK(a) (where K(a) is the acid dissociation constant) required for A2486 to perform this function may derive in part from its hydrogen bonding to G2482 (G2447 in E. coli), which also interacts with a buried phosphate that could stabilize unusual tautomers of these two bases. The polypeptide exit tunnel is largely formed by RNA but has significant contributions from proteins L4, L22, and L39e, and its exit is encircled by proteins L19, L22, L23, L24, L29, and L31e.
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              Synthesis of activated pyrimidine ribonucleotides in prebiotically plausible conditions.

              At some stage in the origin of life, an informational polymer must have arisen by purely chemical means. According to one version of the 'RNA world' hypothesis this polymer was RNA, but attempts to provide experimental support for this have failed. In particular, although there has been some success demonstrating that 'activated' ribonucleotides can polymerize to form RNA, it is far from obvious how such ribonucleotides could have formed from their constituent parts (ribose and nucleobases). Ribose is difficult to form selectively, and the addition of nucleobases to ribose is inefficient in the case of purines and does not occur at all in the case of the canonical pyrimidines. Here we show that activated pyrimidine ribonucleotides can be formed in a short sequence that bypasses free ribose and the nucleobases, and instead proceeds through arabinose amino-oxazoline and anhydronucleoside intermediates. The starting materials for the synthesis-cyanamide, cyanoacetylene, glycolaldehyde, glyceraldehyde and inorganic phosphate-are plausible prebiotic feedstock molecules, and the conditions of the synthesis are consistent with potential early-Earth geochemical models. Although inorganic phosphate is only incorporated into the nucleotides at a late stage of the sequence, its presence from the start is essential as it controls three reactions in the earlier stages by acting as a general acid/base catalyst, a nucleophilic catalyst, a pH buffer and a chemical buffer. For prebiotic reaction sequences, our results highlight the importance of working with mixed chemical systems in which reactants for a particular reaction step can also control other steps.
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                Author and article information

                Journal
                applab
                Quarterly Reviews of Biophysics
                Quart. Rev. Biophys.
                Cambridge University Press (CUP)
                0033-5835
                1469-8994
                2017
                March 2017
                : 50
                :
                Article
                10.1017/S0033583517000038
                © 2017

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