Laboratory 'theme park' re-creates RNA world for study

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (Aug. 26, 2003) People love theme parks, giant playgrounds that usually offer patchwork renditions of either an evocative historical moment or a particular future vision. Rarely, if ever, are theme parks built around a biological theme and never do such parks fit inside a test tube. Almost never. Scientist David Bartel is hard at work on what might seem an impossibility a microscopic theme park whose motif, the origins of life, is of equal interest to both scientists and philosophers.

Bartel, a researcher at Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, pursues a theory of early evolution called the "RNA-world hypothesis," which maintains that, in the beginning, long before DNA or protein existed, RNA performed both DNA's job of encoding information and protein's job of catalyzing replication. Because RNA replication is far simpler than protein replication, and because RNA participates in central cellular functions, researchers postulate a primitive, yet elegant, system in which RNA made RNA.

Central to this hypothesis is an RNA enzyme that replicates other RNA molecules. Unfortunately, no such molecule currently exists in nature. To demonstrate the feasibility of this hypothesis, researchers must re-create certain aspects of this RNA world in the lab. Hence Bartel's RNA theme park. According to Bartel, the micro exhibits in his lab are "artificial and fragmented when compared with the real thing, but still well worth a visit."

So far, Bartel has developed some impressive displays. In a paper published in the journal Science in 2001, his lab demonstrated one of the first pieces of hard evidence that such a world is at least possible. But this landmark paper also revealed that Bartel's RNA molecules didn't yet perform to the degree that the RNA world would have required. In a July 2003 follow-up in the journal Biochemistry, Bartel and doctoral student Michael Lawrence published research pinpointing the exact reason for thi

Contact: Kelli Whitlock or David Cameron
Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research

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