Thirty years ago, molecular biologist Walter Gilbert published his RNA world hypothesis, which posited that early in evolution living systems were composed entirely of RNA. Proposed in the immediate wake of the discovery that certain RNA molecules were capable of catalyzing biological reactions, the hypothesis ascribed both of life’s essential functions, namely carrying information and catalysis—respectively, performed by DNA and proteins in most modern life systems—to RNA, which were labeled as ribozymes. In the years since its inception, the RNA world has been greeted with equal parts enthusiasm and opposition from the origins of life research community, of which Gilbert neither was, nor really became, a part. For this special historical issue of the Journal of Molecular Evolution, Gilbert agreed to revisit his hypothesis and share his memories about the theory’s origins and his insights into its fate in the years since he first published his idea.
RNA world hypothesis Walter Gilbert Origins of life Ribozymes History of science
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This list of people to thank for bringing this paper to fruition is long, but must begin with Prof. Wally Gilbert who very generously shared a Sunday talking with me about the RNA World and sharing his art as well. The second person is Dr. Antonio Lazcano who was kind enough to forward the call for papers for this special historical issue based on a few email exchanges due to which he learned of my interest in the history of the RNA World. Profuse thanks also to my international network of friends with interests in this area, many of whom I have only met virtually: notably Anthony Poole, Scott Podolsky, and Susie Fisher for their input and insights on various drafts of this paper, and Dhananjay Bambah-Mukku for keeping me in touch with the academic world.
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