Journal of Molecular Evolution

, Volume 27, Issue 4, pp 283–290 | Cite as

The evolutionary transition from RNA to DNA in early cells

  • A. Lazcano
  • R. Guerrero
  • L. Margulis
  • J. Oró


The evolution of genetic material can be divided into at least three major phases: first, genomes of “nucleic acid-like” molecules; secondly, genomes of RNA; and finally, double-stranded DNA genomes such as those present in all contemporary cells. Using properties of nucleic acid molecules, we attempt to explain the evolutionary transition from RNA alone as a cellular informational macromolecule prior to the evolution of cell systems based on double-stranded DNA. The idea that ribonucleic acid-based cellular genomes preceded DNA is based on the following: (1) protein synthesis can occur in the absence of DNA but not of RNA; (2) RNA molecules have some catalytic properties; (3) the ubiquity of purine and pyridine nucleotide coenzymes as well as other similar ribonucleotide cofactors in metabolic pathways; and (4) the fact that the biosynthesis of deoxyribonucleotides always proceeds via the enzymatic reduction of ribonucleotides.

The “RNA prior to DNA” hypothesis can be further developed by understanding the selective pressures that led to the biosynthesis of deoxyribose, thymine, and proofreading DNA polymerases. Taken together these observations suggest to us that DNA was selected as an informational molecule in cells to stabilize earlier RNA-protein replicating systems. These arguments include the facts that (1) the 2′-deoxy-containing phosphodiester backbone is more stable in aqueous conditions and in the presence of transition metal ions (such as Zn2+) than its ribo-equivalents; (2) the absence of proofreading activity in RNA polymerases leads to a higher rate of mutation in RNA genomes relative to DNA; (3) information in RNA degrades because of the tendency of cytosine to deaminate to uracil and the lack of a correcting enzyme; and (4) UV irradiation produces a larger number of photochemical changes in RNA molecules relative to double-stranded DNA. The absence of atmospheric UV attenuation during the early Earth environment (Hadean and early Archean) would have imposed an intense selection pressure favoring duplex DNA over other genetic information storage systems.

If RNA preceded DNA as a reservior of cellular genetic information, then an RNA-replicating oligopeptide must have been one of the earliest protoenzymes from which RNA polymerase presumably evolved. We conclude that RNA polymerases are among the oldest classes of enzymes.

Key words

Primordial genomes Double-stranded DNA Early Darwinian evolution Early Earth environment RNA versus DNA 


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag New York Inc 1988

Authors and Affiliations

  • A. Lazcano
    • 1
  • R. Guerrero
    • 2
  • L. Margulis
    • 3
  • J. Oró
    • 4
  1. 1.Departamento de MicrobiologíaEscuela Nacional de Ciencias Biológicas, IPNMéxicoMéxico
  2. 2.Departamento de Microbiología y Genética, Facultad de CienciasUniversidad Autonoma de BarcelonaBellaterra (Barcelona)Spain
  3. 3.Department of BiologyBoston UniversityBostonUSA
  4. 4.Department of Biochemical and Biophysical SciencesUniversity of HoustonHoustonUSA

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