Experimental investigation of an RNA sequence space
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Modern rRNAs are the historic consequence of an ongoing evolutionary exploration of a sequence space. These extant sequences belong to a special subset of the sequence space that is comprised only of those primary sequences that can validly perform the biological function(s) required of the particular RNA. If it were possible to readily identify all such valid sequences, stochastic predictions could be made about the relative likelihood of various evolutionary pathways available to an RNA. Herein an experimental system which can assess whether a particular sequence is likely to have validity as a eubacterial 5S rRNA is described. A total of ten naturally occurring, and hence known to be valid, sequences and two point mutants of unknown validity were used to test the usefulness of the approach. Nine of the ten valid sequences tested positive whereas both mutants tested as clearly defective. The tenth valid sequence gave results that would be interpreted as reflecting a borderline status were the answer not known. These results demonstrate that it is possible to experimentally determine which sequences in local regions of the sequence space are potentially valid 5S rRNAs. This approach will allow direct study of the constraints governing RNA evolution and allow inquiry into how the last common ancestor of extant life apparently came to have very complex ribosomal RNAs that subsequently were very conserved.
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