MRC Scientists Say New Research May Finally Unlock the Mystery of How Life Began on Earth
Like DNA but simpler (and made of only one strand), RNA has the ability to fold itself into three-dimensional shapes and create chemical reactions, but the one thing it can't do when folded is replicate itself.
Without folding itself, however, RNA can't do much of anything.
RNA seemed like the logical first step for life to take before developing into more complex forms, but the problem of self-replication has been a dead end for biologists studying early life—until now.
When an RNA strand folds itself into a three-dimensional shape, it's able to create an enzyme called a ribozyme.
Enzymes are catalysts for other chemical reactions, and the Holy Grail is creating a ribozyme that can trigger the self-replication of folded RNA, which can create more ribozymes, which can create more self-replication.
The normal way to carry out self-replication is to add the chemical bases (adenine, guanine, etc.) to a strand of RNA one at a time, but a team of scientists from the Medical Research Council (MRC) Laboratory of Molecular Biology have created a new type of ribozyme that adds new bases three at a time.
This allows RNA to pull off the long-sought-after ability to replicate three-dimensional versions of itself and provide a model for how life may have began on early Earth.
There's only one issue: nothing living on Earth now replicates like this.
This either means humans have created a totally new method for RNA to reproduce itself, or the secret of RNA replication was biologically lost eons ago. Or, perhaps even more tantalizing, RNA found another way to transform itself from being a string of chemicals to a rudimentary form of life, and we've just stumbled across an alternate method.
Either way, it's a major leap forward for biology, as well as biotech and medicine.
"This is a really exciting example of blue skies research that has revealed important insights into how the very beginnings of life may have emerged from the 'primordial soup' some 3.7 billion years ago," said Dr. Nathan Richardson, one of the scientists associated with the project.
"Not only is this fascinating science, but understanding the minimal requirements for RNA replication and how these systems can be manipulated could offer exciting new strategies for treating human disease."