I’ve been traveling a lot lately. I don’t have time for some, um, wordy essays, but time hasn’t stood still. So I thought I would point out some interesting stuff that has appeared recently. These have an RNA World theme.
If there is a message I wish to send, it is that the RNA World is, as always, a thriving and exciting place for a scientist to be. Enjoy. (The last two entries are going to generate lots of buzz in the blogosphere.)
Walter E. Kowtoniuk, Yinghua Shen, Jennifer M. Heemstra, Isha Agarwal and David R. Liu. A chemical screen for biological small molecule–RNA conjugates reveals CoA-linked RNA. PNAS May 12, 2009 vol. 106 no. 19 7768-7773.
Compared with the rapidly expanding set of known biological roles for RNA, the known chemical diversity of cellular RNA has remained limited primarily to canonical RNA, 3′-aminoacylated tRNAs, nucleobase-modified RNAs, and 5′-capped mRNAs in eukaryotes. We developed two methods to detect in a broad manner chemically labile cellular small molecule–RNA conjugates. The methods were validated by the detection of known tRNA and rRNA modifications. The first method analyzes small molecules cleaved from RNA by base or nucleophile treatment. Application to Escherichia coli and Streptomyces venezuelae RNA revealed an RNA-linked hydroxyfuranone or succinyl ester group, in addition to a number of other putative small molecule–RNA conjugates not previously reported. The second method analyzes nuclease-generated mononucleotides before and after treatment with base or nucleophile and also revealed a number of new putative small molecule–RNA conjugates, including 3′-dephospho-CoA and its succinyl-, acetyl-, and methylmalonyl-thioester derivatives. Subsequent experiments established that these CoA species are attached to E. coli and S. venezuelae RNA at the 5′ terminus. CoA-linked RNA cannot be generated through aberrant transcriptional initiation by E. coli RNA polymerase in vitro, and CoA-linked RNA in E. coli is only found among smaller (≲200 nucleotide) RNAs that have yet to be identified. These results provide examples of small molecule-RNA conjugates and suggest that the chemical diversity of cellular RNA may be greater than previously understood.
Organisms that compete for limited resources within a common environment may evolve traits that allow them to exploit distinct ecological niches, thus enabling multiple species to coexist within the same habitat. The process of niche partitioning now has been captured at the molecular level, employing the method of continuous in vitro evolution. Mixed populations of 2 different “species” of RNA enzymes were made to compete for limited amounts of one or more substrates, with utilization of the substrate being necessary for amplification of the RNA. Evolution in the presence of a single substrate led to the extinction of one or the other enzyme, whereas evolution in the presence of 5 alternative substrates led to the accumulation of mutations that allowed each enzyme to exploit a different preferred resource. The evolved enzymes were capable of sustained coevolution within a common environment, exemplifying the emergence of stable ecological niche behavior in a model system. Biochemical characterization of the 2 evolved enzymes revealed marked differences in their kinetic properties and adaptive strategies. One enzyme reacted with its preferred substrate ≈100-fold faster than the other, but the slower-reacting species produced 2- to 3-fold more progeny per reacted parent molecule. The in vitro coevolution of 2 or more species of RNA enzymes will make possible further studies in molecular ecology, including the exploration of more complex behaviors, such as predation or cooperation, under controlled laboratory conditions.
Matthew W. Powner, Béatrice Gerland & John D. Sutherland. Synthesis of activated pyrimidine ribonucleotides in prebiotically plausible conditions. Nature 459, 239-242 (14 May 2009) | doi:10.1038/nature08013
At some stage in the origin of life, an informational polymer must have arisen by purely chemical means. According to one version of the ‘RNA world’ hypothesis1, 2, 3 this polymer was RNA, but attempts to provide experimental support for this have failed4, 5. In particular, although there has been some success demonstrating that ‘activated’ ribonucleotides can polymerize to form RNA6, 7, it is far from obvious how such ribonucleotides could have formed from their constituent parts (ribose and nucleobases). Ribose is difficult to form selectively8, 9, and the addition of nucleobases to ribose is inefficient in the case of purines10 and does not occur at all in the case of the canonical pyrimidines11. Here we show that activated pyrimidine ribonucleotides can be formed in a short sequence that bypasses free ribose and the nucleobases, and instead proceeds through arabinose amino-oxazoline and anhydronucleoside intermediates. The starting materials for the synthesis—cyanamide, cyanoacetylene, glycolaldehyde, glyceraldehyde and inorganic phosphate—are plausible prebiotic feedstock molecules12, 13, 14, 15, and the conditions of the synthesis are consistent with potential early-Earth geochemical models. Although inorganic phosphate is only incorporated into the nucleotides at a late stage of the sequence, its presence from the start is essential as it controls three reactions in the earlier stages by acting as a general acid/base catalyst, a nucleophilic catalyst, a pH buffer and a chemical buffer. For prebiotic reaction sequences, our results highlight the importance of working with mixed chemical systems in which reactants for a particular reaction step can also control other steps.
(This is a link to a news report that talks about Powner et al.) Jack W. Szostak. Origins of life: Systems chemistry on early Earth. Nature 459, 171-172 (14 May 2009) | doi:10.1038/459171a
Understanding how life emerged on Earth is one of the greatest challenges facing modern chemistry. A new way of looking at the synthesis of RNA sidesteps a thorny problem in the field.