The Old and New RNA World

Zofia Szweykowska-Kulińska


Among the numerous hypotheses offering a scenario for the origin of life on Earth, the one called “The RNA World” has gained the most attention. According to this hypothesis RNA acted as a genetic information storage material, as a catalyst of all metabolic reactions, and as a regulator of all processes in the primordial world. Various experiments show that RNA molecules could have been synthesized abiotically, with the potential to mediate a whole repertoire of metabolic reactions. Ribozymes carrying out aminoacyl-tRNA reactions have been found in SELEX (systematic evolution of ligands by exponential enrichment) approaches and the development of a ribosome from a RNA-built protoribosome is easy to imagine. Transfer RNA aminoacylation, protoribosome origin, and the availability of amino acids on early Earth allowed the genetic code to evolve. Encoded proteins most likely stabilized RNA molecules and were able to create channels across membranes. In the modern cell, DNA replaced RNA as the main depositor of genetic information and proteins carry out almost all metabolic reactions. However, RNA is still playing versatile, crucial roles in the cell. Apart from its classical functions in the cell, a huge small RNA world is controlling gene expression, chromatin condensation, response to environmental cues, and protecting the cell against the invasion of various nucleic acids forms. Long non-coding RNAs act as crucial gene expression regulators. Riboswitches act at the level of transcription, splicing or translation and mediate feedback regulation on biosynthesis and transport of the ligand they sense. Alternative splicing generates genetic variability and increases the protein repertoire in response to developmental or environmental changes. All these regulatory functions are essential in shaping cell plasticity in the changing milieu. Recent discoveries of new, unexpected and important functions of RNA molecules support the hypothesis that we live in a New RNA World.


RNA World hypothesis; ribozyme; small RNAs; long noncoding RNAs; riboswitches; alternative splicing; New RNA World

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