RNA templating of molecular assembly and covalent modification patterning in early molecular evolution and modern biosystems

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Journal of Theoretical Biology (Impact Factor: 2.12). 06/2011; 284(1):32-41. DOI: 10.1016/j.jtbi.2011.06.009
Source: PubMed


The Direct RNA Template (DRT) hypothesis proposes that an early stage of genetic code evolution involved RNA molecules acting as stereochemical recognition templates for assembly of specific amino acids in sequence-ordered arrays, providing a framework for directed covalent peptide bond formation. It is hypothesized here that modern biological precedents may exist for RNA-based structural templating with functional analogies to hypothetical DRT systems. Beyond covalent molecular assembly, an extension of the DRT concept can include RNA molecules acting as dynamic structural template guides for the specific non-covalent assembly of multi-subunit complexes, equivalent to structural assembly chaperones. However, despite numerous precedents for RNA molecules acting as scaffolds for protein complexes, true RNA-mediated assembly chaperoning appears to be absent in modern biosystems. Another level of function with parallels to a DRT system is possible if RNA structural motifs dynamically guided specific patterns of catalytic modifications within multiple target sites in a pre-formed polymer or macromolecular complex. It is suggested that this type of structural RNA templating could logically play a functional role in certain areas of biology, one of which is the glycome of complex organisms. If any such RNA templating processes are shown to exist, they would share no necessary evolutionary relationships with events during early molecular evolution, but may promote understanding of the practical limits of biological RNA functions now and in the ancient RNA World. Awareness of these formal possibilities may also assist in the current search for functions of extensive non-coding RNAs in complex organisms, or for efforts towards artificial rendering of DRT systems.

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    ABSTRACT: Terrestrial biosystems depend on macromolecules, and this feature is often considered as a likely universal aspect of life. While opinions differ regarding the importance of small-molecule systems in abiogenesis, escalating biological functional demands are linked with increasing complexity in key molecules participating in biosystem operations, and many such requirements cannot be efficiently mediated by relatively small compounds. It has long been recognized that known life is associated with the evolution of two distinct molecular alphabets (nucleic acid and protein), specific sequence combinations of which serve as informational and functional polymers. In contrast, much less detailed focus has been directed towards the potential universal need for molecular alphabets in constituting complex chemically-based life, and the implications of such a requirement. To analyze this, emphasis here is placed on the generalizable replicative and functional characteristics of molecular alphabets and their concatenates. A primary replicative alphabet based on the simplest possible molecular complementarity can potentially enable evolutionary processes to occur, including the encoding of secondarily functional alphabets. Very large uniquely specified ('non-alphabetic') molecules cannot feasibly underlie systems capable of the replicative and evolutionary properties which characterize complex biosystems. Transitions in the molecular evolution of alphabets can be related to progressive bridging of barriers which enable higher levels of biosystem organization. It is thus highly probable that molecular alphabets are an obligatory requirement for complex chemically-based life anywhere in the universe. In turn, reference to molecular alphabets should be usefully applied in current definitions of life.
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