RNA World Gets Support as Prelife Scenario. (Science News of the Week)

By Netting, J. | Science News, April 7, 2001 | Go to article overview

RNA World Gets Support as Prelife Scenario. (Science News of the Week)


Netting, J., Science News


Scientists tinkering with a chemical now vital to life think they've recreated one of the central molecules that first gave rise to the chemistry of life.

Hiroaki Suga of the State University of New York at Buffalo and his coworkers from Buffalo and the University of Tokyo altered a type of RNA, or ribonucleic acid, the chemical that orchestrates protein making. The researchers found that their modified RNA could by itself perform functions that normally require the help of proteins. Their work, which appears in the April 2 EMBO JOURNAL, supports the hypothesis of a prebiological "RNA world," in which RNA molecules assembled and copied themselves, acting almost as independent living things.

The critical problem in pinning down the origin of life is, "When did the first structure that could both replicate itself and accumulate mutations evolve?" says molecular evolutionist Walter Gilbert of Harvard University. His 1986 article in NATURE explored the idea of a world dominated by RNA and coined the term for it. "The RNA-world idea is an answer to the problem of when the first information began to copy itself and make more information," he says.

There are other candidates for the first lifelike molecule, namely proteins and DNA. Suga contends, however, that RNA remains the most plausible candidate. "With the others you have the chicken-and-egg type of problem," says Suga. DNA encodes instructions for making proteins but can't build the protein molecules. Proteins can synthesize molecules--including proteins, DNA, and RNA--but only with instructions from other molecules.

Several types of RNA normally bridge these ability gaps by shuttling copies of DNA information to protein-making RNA molecules. …

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