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Study offers insights into evolutionary origins of life

In some of the strongest evidence yet to support the RNA worldan era in early evolution when life forms depended on RNAscientists at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research have created an RNA catalyst, or a ribozyme, that possesses some of the key properties needed to sustain life in such a world.

The new ribozyme, generated by David Bartel and his colleagues at the Whitehead, can carry out a remarkably complicated and challenging reaction, especially given that it was not isolated from nature but created from scratch in the laboratory. This ribozyme can use information from a template RNA to make a third, new RNA. It can do so with more than 95 percent accuracy, and most importantly, its ability is not restricted by the length or the exact sequence of letters in the original template. The ribozyme can extend an RNA strand, adding up to 14 nucleotides, or letters, to make up more than a complete turn of an RNA helix.

These results, described in the May 18 issue of Science, suggest that RNA could have had the ability to replicate itself and sustain life in early evolution, before the advent of DNA and proteins. The findings will ultimately help evolutionary biologists address questions about how life began on earth more than three billion years ago.

Until almost two decades ago, many researchers thought that RNA was nothing more than a molecular interpreter that helps translate DNA codes into proteins. Then scientists discovered that not all enzymes were proteinssome were made of RNA. Over the past decade, they have developed techniques for producing new ribozymes in the lab, and a series of studies by the Bartel lab at the Whitehead has been lending credence to the notion of an RNA world. Still, none of the ribozymes generated by the Bartel lab or others in the field possessed the sophisticated properties needed to accurately replicate RNA. The finding reported in Science this week narrows that gap.

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Contact: Nadia Halim
halim@wi.mit.edu
617-258-9183
Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research
16-May-2001


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