top of page

Groundbreaking experiment reveals how life on Earth may have started

Salk scientists unveil RNA capabilities that enable Darwinian evolution at a molecular scale, and bring researchers closer to producing autonomous RNA life in the laboratory.
Salk scientists unveil RNA capabilities that enable Darwinian evolution at a molecular scale, and bring researchers closer to producing autonomous RNA life in the laboratory. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)


In the realm of evolutionary biology, Charles Darwin famously coined the phrase "descent with modification" to encapsulate the process through which genetic information, encoded in DNA sequences, undergoes replication and introduces variations over generations. This flexibility in genetic inheritance is fundamental to the emergence of new traits within populations over time.


Delving into the origins of life itself, scientists have long pondered whether a similar mechanism of evolution could have operated on a simpler scale before the advent of complex cellular structures, proteins, and DNA.


 
 

In the 1960s, pioneering researchers like Leslie Orgel proposed the concept of the "RNA World," envisioning a primordial era dominated by RNA molecules, where the principles of Darwinian evolution laid the groundwork for life's emergence and diversification.


Recent research conducted at the Salk Institute sheds new light on this intriguing hypothesis, offering compelling evidence in support of the RNA World scenario.


Published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the study unveils a remarkable RNA enzyme capable of accurately replicating functional RNA strands while also facilitating the emergence of novel variants over successive generations. These findings hint at the possibility that early evolutionary processes may have unfolded on a molecular scale, driven by the inherent properties of RNA.


 
 

Led by senior author and Salk President Gerald Joyce, the research endeavors to elucidate the origins of life and the transition from simple molecular systems to the complexity and diversity observed in contemporary organisms.


By delving into the capabilities of RNA molecules, the study aims to uncover the foundational mechanisms that paved the way for the evolution of life on Earth and potentially on other celestial bodies.


 

Related Stories

 

While DNA serves as a reliable repository of genetic information in modern organisms, the origins of this molecular machinery remain shrouded in mystery. Unlike DNA, RNA molecules possess a unique dual functionality—they can store genetic information akin to DNA and also catalyze biochemical reactions similar to proteins.


This versatility prompts speculation about RNA's potential role as a precursor to life's emergence, capable of both storing and transmitting genetic information while catalyzing essential biochemical processes.


 
 

Central to the investigation are RNA polymerase ribozymes, specialized RNA molecules with the ability to replicate other RNA sequences—a crucial aspect of early evolutionary dynamics. Over the past decade, Joyce and his team have employed directed evolution techniques to engineer RNA polymerase ribozymes capable of replicating increasingly larger RNA molecules.


David Horning, Gerald Joyce, and Nikolaos Papastavrou.
From left: David Horning, Gerald Joyce, and Nikolaos Papastavrou. (CREDIT: Salk Institute)


However, previous iterations of these ribozymes exhibited a significant flaw—they lacked the requisite fidelity to accurately preserve the original RNA sequence over multiple replication cycles.


 
 

In a groundbreaking development, the latest iteration of RNA polymerase ribozyme overcomes this limitation through a series of strategic mutations, enabling it to faithfully replicate RNA strands with unprecedented accuracy.


Hammerhead sequences copied by the lower-fidelity polymerase drift away from their original RNA sequence
Hammerhead sequences copied by the lower-fidelity polymerase drift away from their original RNA sequence (top) and lose their function over time. Hammerheads catalyzed by the higher-fidelity polymerase retain function and evolve fitter sequences (bottom). (CREDIT: Salk Institute)


Experimental observations reveal that not only does the ribozyme accurately copy functional RNA molecules, but it also engenders the emergence of diverse RNA variants over time. These variants, while functionally similar to their progenitors, exhibit mutations that enhance their replicative efficiency, thereby conferring a selective advantage and eventually dominating the population.


 
 

Lead author Nikolaos Papastavrou, a research associate in Joyce's lab, emphasizes the profound implications of these findings for understanding life's origins.



The study suggests that the dawn of evolution might have been initiated by simple molecular entities, such as RNA molecules, capable of sustaining Darwinian evolution at the molecular level. This molecular-level evolution could have catalyzed the transition from rudimentary molecular systems to more complex biological entities, ultimately culminating in the emergence of cellular life forms.


 
 

The research underscores the pivotal role of replication fidelity in driving evolutionary processes. To preserve heritable information across successive generations, the accuracy of RNA replication must surpass a critical threshold, particularly as evolving RNA molecules increase in size and complexity.


Joyce and his colleagues spent years raising generation upon generation of RNA molecules in the lab.
Joyce and his colleagues spent years raising generation upon generation of RNA molecules in the lab. (CREDIT: Salk Institute)


By meticulously re-creating these evolutionary dynamics in laboratory settings, Joyce's team aims to engineer an RNA polymerase capable of self-replication—a milestone that would mark the inception of autonomous RNA-based life in controlled environments.


 
 

Looking ahead, the researchers are keen to explore the potential for further complexity and innovation within this miniaturized "RNA World." By subjecting evolving RNA populations to prolonged selection pressures and expanding their genetic diversity, they hope to elucidate the mechanisms underlying the escalation of biological complexity from simple molecular precursors.


Moreover, the experimental methodologies developed in the Joyce lab lay the groundwork for future investigations into alternative hypotheses regarding life's origins, including the environmental conditions conducive to RNA evolution on Earth and beyond.


The research at the Salk Institute represents a significant stride towards unraveling the enigma of life's origins.


 
 

By delving into the intrinsic properties of RNA molecules and their evolutionary dynamics, scientists inch closer to deciphering the fundamental processes that culminated in the emergence of life on Earth—a quest that holds profound implications for our understanding of the cosmos and our place within it.






For more science stories check out our New Discoveries section at The Brighter Side of News.


 

Note: Materials provided above by the The Brighter Side of News. Content may be edited for style and length.


 
 

Like these kind of feel good stories? Get the Brighter Side of News' newsletter.


 

コメント


Most Recent Stories

bottom of page