RNA or Related Precursors May Have Been the First Genes and Catalysts

In modern organisms, nucleic acids encode the genetic information that specifies the structure of enzymes, and enzymes catalyze the replication and repair of nucleic acids. The mutual dependence of these two classes of biomolecules brings up the perplexing question: which came first, DNA or protein?

The answer may be: neither. The discovery that RNA molecules can act as catalysts in their own forma-

Electrodes

Electrodes

FIGURE 1-33 Abiotic production of biomolecules. Spark-discharge apparatus of the type used by Miller and Urey in experiments demonstrating abiotic formation of organic compounds under primitive atmospheric conditions. After subjection of the gaseous contents of the system to electrical sparks, products were collected by condensation. Biomolecules such as amino acids were among the products.

FIGURE 1-33 Abiotic production of biomolecules. Spark-discharge apparatus of the type used by Miller and Urey in experiments demonstrating abiotic formation of organic compounds under primitive atmospheric conditions. After subjection of the gaseous contents of the system to electrical sparks, products were collected by condensation. Biomolecules such as amino acids were among the products.

tion suggests that RNA or a similar molecule may have been the first gene and the first catalyst. According to this scenario (Fig. 1-34), one of the earliest stages of biological evolution was the chance formation, in the primordial soup, of an RNA molecule that could catalyze the formation of other RNA molecules of the same sequence—a self-replicating, self-perpetuating RNA. The concentration of a self-replicating RNA molecule would increase exponentially, as one molecule formed two, two formed four, and so on. The fidelity of self-replication was presumably less than perfect, so the process would generate variants of the RNA, some of which might be even better able to self-replicate. In the competition for nucleotides, the most efficient of the self-replicating sequences would win, and less efficient replicators would fade from the population.

The division of function between DNA (genetic information storage) and protein (catalysis) was, according to the "RNA world" hypothesis, a later development. New variants of self-replicating RNA molecules developed, with the additional ability to catalyze the condensation of amino acids into peptides. Occasionally, the peptide(s) thus formed would reinforce the self-replicating ability of the RNA, and the pair—RNA

molecule and helping peptide—could undergo further modifications in sequence, generating even more efficient self-replicating systems. The recent, remarkable discovery that, in the protein-synthesizing machinery of modern cells (ribosomes), RNA molecules, not proteins, catalyze the formation of peptide bonds is certainly consistent with the RNA world hypothesis.

Some time after the evolution of this primitive protein-synthesizing system, there was a further development: DNA molecules with sequences complementary to the self-replicating RNA molecules took over the function of conserving the "genetic" information, and RNA molecules evolved to play roles in protein synthesis. (We explain in Chapter 8 why DNA is a more stable molecule than RNA and thus a better repository of inheritable information.) Proteins proved to be versatile catalysts and, over time, took over that function. Lipidlike compounds in the primordial soup formed relatively impermeable layers around self-replicating collections of molecules. The concentration of proteins and nucleic acids within these lipid enclosures favored the molecular interactions required in self-replication.

FIGURE 1-34 A possible "RNA world" scenario.
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