By: April Carson
We've just gotten more evidence that life on Earth may have started with RNA, with Japanese researchers producing self-replicating, diversifying, and complex RNA.
The work, which was published in the journal Nature Chemistry, demonstrates that RNA can evolve on its own given the right conditions - something that's thought to be necessary for life to arise. This provides more support for the RNA World hypothesis, which suggests that RNA was the first self-replicating molecule on Earth and served as the basis for all life.
Earth was awash with a churning organic soup that sat on the verge of something significant long before it had its first budding cells of primordial ooze.
That thin line between complicated chemistry and the origin of life is, in a sense, a watershed moment in the development of biochemistry. We do know several things about it, but we lack key information due to our paucity of knowledge.
The scientists of the University of Tokyo have recently reinforced an earlier study's conclusion that RNA's unique talents can explain how life emerged billions of years ago, corroborating the "RNA world" theory.
The study, however, indicates that it may not have occurred precisely as we imagined.
They illustrate how a molecule that is currently essential to the survival and reproduction of all life today may progress into an evolving system if it functions as a team.
"We discovered that the single RNA species evolved into a sophisticated replication mechanism: a replicator network consisting of five types of RNAs with various interactions, lending support to the plausibility of a long-imagined evolutionary transition scenario," explains evolutionary biologist Ryo Mizuuchi.
Life, in its most basic form, is made up of molecules that may create faulty copies of themselves, generating a virtually limitless number of variants that (or may not) might (or might not) endure long enough to make copies. The key to whether a particular variant thrives or dies lies in the environment.
If a new variant arises that is better at copying itself than its predecessors, it will spread and come to dominate the population. Over time, this process of natural selection can lead to the emergence of new and increasingly complex forms of life.
The search for life's origin has essentially been a quest to identify candidates that can do the replication task without the help of special organic materials like DNA or proteins, which would speed up genetic engineering.
Longstanding frontrunner DNA has long been the search's focus. It is now found all around us and could have been on ancient Earth as a result of non-biological mechanisms, can preserve a lot of information, and is a dynamic physical entity.
Because of this, it has the potential to produce structures that can physically create new molecules and then construct new structures. If this process is flawed, some of the 'replicator' structures will finish the task faster or more efficiently than others, establishing itself as the common type of RNA... at least until something even better appears.
We've known for decades that self-constructed individual RNA molecules are too simple and unstable for such a scenario, so we're not even going to go there. Even DNA's deoxygenated sibling lacks the tenacity to stay together long enough for natural selection to get off on the right foot.
It doesn't imply that multiple strands acting as a unit can't do the task. This data problem might be readily resolved if there are a few of distinct replicating units working on a population level.
Replicators have been created based on RNA, DNA, and even proteins to demonstrate how it may be done, with scientists going to great lengths to ensure that the molecule structures collaborate and duplicate in a timely manner.
Meanwhile, without the need for replication, organisms have remained simple and unicellular. Although none has evolved more complex over time to date, RNA has been shown to be capable of doing so.
The solution becomes more complex over successive generations This implies they've discovered the proper molecular design for RNA molecules, and have created individual replicator molecules that can work together to not just keep information and alter over time, but to do so in such a way that the answer grows increasingly complicated.
They conducted a study to see whether synthetic genes in water droplets immersed in oil would be able to replicate themselves more than a hundred times.
"To be honest, we questioned whether such different RNAs could arise and coexist," says Mizuuchi. "But, in fact, the droplets were full of all sorts of different RNAs."
The next step is to see if these evolved RNAs can actually do something useful.
"We are now studying whether such evolved RNAs have some function, for example, catalytic activity," he says.
The "competitive exclusion principle" in evolutionary theory states that if two species compete for the same resources, they cannot coexist. This implies that molecules must figure out a way to utilize several resources one after another in order to diversify on their own. We wondered whether nonliving chemical species might evolve such creativity without the need for life.
The proof-of-concept shows that this is feasible as long as the RNAs don't compete for resources but instead collaborate in a host-parasite relationship. If one RNA replicator is eliminated, the others perish.
While we may be more inclined to believe that a 'RNA world' could have been the case, it does not yet demonstrate how life evolved on Earth billions of years ago. We'd need a variety of sources of evidence, including geology and astrophysics, to make a strong case for that.
However, it's a significant stride forward in our search for chemical evolutionary models that can transform primordial slime into a beautiful variety of diversity that remains more complex to this day.
The study provides a fascinating glimpse into one possible pathway for the origins of life.
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About the Blogger:
April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on bossbabymav.com
To read more of April's blogs, check out her website! She publishes new blogs on a daily basis, including the most helpful mommy advice and baby care tips! Follow on IG @bossbabymav
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