The concept of an autocatalytic set of molecules has been posited theoretically and demonstrated empirically with catalytic RNA molecules. For this concept to have significance in a realistic origins-of-life scenario, it will be important to demonstrate the evolvability of such sets. Here, we employ a Gillespie algorithm to improve and expand on previous simulations of an empirical system of self-assembling RNA fragments that has the ability to spontaneously form autocatalytic networks. We specifically examine the role of serial transfer as a plausible means to allow time-dependent changes in set composition, and compare the results to equilibrium, or "batch" scenarios.
Prebiotic chemical reactions would have been greatly aided by a process whereby living materials could have been recycled under conditions of limiting resources. Recombination of RNA fragments is a viable means of recycling but has not been demonstrated. Using systems based on the Azoarcus group I intron ribozyme, computational Monte Carlo studies indicate that a moderate level of recycling activity, spontaneous or catalyzed, leads to the most robust selection scenarios. It is interesting that recycling leads to a threshold effect where a dominant species suddenly jumps to fixation. In conjunction, laboratory studies with the Azoarcus ribozyme corroborate these results, showing that mixtures of scrambled and/or deleteriously mutated molecules can recycle their component fragments to generate fully functional recombinase ribozymes. These studies highlight the importance of recombination and recycling jointly in the advent of living systems.
Catalytic RNA molecules possess simultaneously a genotype and a phenotype. However, a single RNA genotype has the potential to adopt two or perhaps more distinct phenotypes as a result of differential folding and/or catalytic activity. Such multifunctionality would be particularly significant if the phenotypes were functionally inter-related in a common biochemical pathway. Here, this phenomenon is demonstrated by the ability of the Azoarcus group I ribozyme to function when its canonical internal guide sequence (GUG) has been removed from the 5 end of the molecule, and added back exogenously in trans. The presence of GUG triplets in non-covalent fragments of the ribozyme allow trans-splicing to occur in both a reverse splicing assay and a covalent self-assembly assay in which the internal guide sequence (IGS)-less ribozyme can put itself together from two of its component pieces. Analysis of these reactions indicates that a single RNA fragment can perform up to three distinct roles in a reaction: behaving as a portion of a catalyst, behaving as a substrate, and providing an exogenous IGS. This property of RNA to be multifunctional in a single reaction pathway bolsters the probability that a system of self-replicating molecules could have existed in an RNA world during the origins of life on the Earth.
RNA and DNA oligonucleotides radiolabeled with (32)P or (33)P often require gel electrophoresis to remove undesired side and/or degradation products. Common ways to visualize these molecules after electrophoresis are by ultraviolet (UV) shadowing, which necessarily reduces the specific activity of the oligonucleotide, and by autoradiography using film, which is cumbersome and increases the cost of generating the radiolabeled molecule. A more cost-effective method is to physically inject the gel with a "Dip-N-Dot" solution of dye and radionuclide after electrophoresis but prior to phosphorimaging. The gel can be overlaid on its computer-generated image, allowing the labeled molecules to be visualized quickly.
The origins of life on Earth required the establishment of self-replicating chemical systems capable of maintaining and evolving biological information. In an RNA world, single self-replicating RNAs would have faced the extreme challenge of possessing a mutation rate low enough both to sustain their own information and to compete successfully against molecular parasites with limited evolvability. Thus theoretical analyses suggest that networks of interacting molecules were more likely to develop and sustain life-like behaviour. Here we show that mixtures of RNA fragments that self-assemble into self-replicating ribozymes spontaneously form cooperative catalytic cycles and networks. We find that a specific three-membered network has highly cooperative growth dynamics. When such cooperative networks are competed directly against selfish autocatalytic cycles, the former grow faster, indicating an intrinsic ability of RNA populations to evolve greater complexity through cooperation. We can observe the evolvability of networks through in vitro selection. Our experiments highlight the advantages of cooperative behaviour even at the molecular stages of nascent life.
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