This research, described in the latest issue of the journal Nature, demonstrates that Darwinian evolution can occur in a genetic system with only two bases, and it also supports a theory in the field that an early form of life on earth may have been restricted to two bases.
"Nobody will ever top this because binary systems are the most reduced form of information processing," says Joyce. "Two different subunits are the absolute minimum number you need [for Darwinian evolution]."
Where protein enzymes are polymer strings made up of 20 building blocks (the amino acids), and RNA or DNA enzymes are made up of four different building blocks (the nucleotides), the world's first binary enzyme has but two different building blocks, based on the nucleotides A and U.
This enzyme is functionally equivalent to a "polymerase" molecule. Polymerases are ubiquitous in nature as the enzymes tasked with taking a "template" string of DNA or RNA bits and making copies of it.
Reader and Joyce's binary enzyme is able to join pieces of RNA that are composed of the same two nucleotide symbols. In the test tube, the binary string folds into an active three-dimensional structure and uses a portion of this string as a template. On the template, it "ligates," or joins subunits together, copying the template.
Experimental Approaches to the Origins of Life
If the origins of life are a philosopher's dream, then they are also a historian's nightmare. There are no known "sources," no fossils, that show us what the very earliest life on earth looked like. The earliest fossils we have found are stromatolites--large clumps of
Contact: Keith McKeown
Scripps Research Institute