The Ribosome Challenge to the RNA World

Abstract

An RNA World that predated the modern world of polypeptide and polynucleotide is one of the most widely accepted models in origin of life research. In this model, the translation system shepherded the RNA World into the extant biology of DNA, RNA, and protein. Here, we examine the RNA World Hypothesis in the context of increasingly detailed information available about the origins, evolution, functions, and mechanisms of the translation system. We conclude that the translation system presents critical challenges to RNA World Hypotheses. Firstly, a timeline of the RNA World is problematic when the ribosome is incorporated. The mechanism of peptidyl transfer of the ribosome appears distinct from evolved enzymes, signaling origins in a chemical rather than biological milieu. Secondly, we have no evidence that the basic biochemical toolset of life is subject to substantive change by Darwinian evolution, as required for the transition from the RNA world to extant biology. Thirdly, we do not see specific evidence for biological takeover of ribozyme function by protein enzymes. Finally, we can find no basis for preservation of the ribosome as ribozyme or the universality of translation, if it were the case that other information transducing ribozymes, such as ribozyme polymerases, were replaced by protein analogs and erased from the phylogenetic record. We suggest that an updated model of the RNA World should address the current state of knowledge of the translation system.

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Acknowledgments

We thank Drs. Harold Bernhardt, Eric Gaucher, Anton Petrov, Anthony Poole and Roger Wartell for helpful discussion. This work was supported by the NASA Astrobiology Institute.

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Correspondence to Loren Dean Williams.

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Bowman, J.C., Hud, N.V. & Williams, L.D. The Ribosome Challenge to the RNA World. J Mol Evol 80, 143–161 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00239-015-9669-9

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Keywords

  • Evolution
  • Genetic code
  • Peptidyl transfer
  • Translation
  • Origin of life
  • Ribozyme