Tuesday, December 23, 2008

RNA and the Origin of Life

What were the conditions necessary for the formation of life? Some scientists believe that RNA was responsible for the development. RNA, the single-stranded precursor to DNA, normally expands one nucleic base at a time, growing sequentially like a linked chain. The problem is that in the primordial world RNA molecules didn't have enzymes to catalyze this reaction, and while RNA growth can proceed naturally, the rate would be so slow the RNA could never get more than a few pieces long (for as nucleic bases attach to one end, they can also drop off the other).

The RNA mechanism to overcome this thermodynamic barrier has been studied by incubating short RNA fragments in water of different temperatures and pH. Under an acidic environment and temperature lower than 70 degrees Celsius, the RNA pieces ranging from 10-24 in length could naturally fuse into larger fragments. This was generally accomplished within 14 hours.

The operation involved the RNA fragments which came together as double-stranded structures then joined at the ends. The fragments did not have to be the same size, but the efficiency of the reactions was dependent on fragment size in which case the larger the better until an optimal efficiency is reached around 100 and then it drops again.

The researchers note that this spontaneous fusing, or ligation, would a simple way for RNA to overcome initial barriers to growth and reach a biologically important size; at around 100 bases long, RNA molecules can begin to fold into functional, 3D shapes.

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