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J Mol Evol. 1992 Dec;35(6):524-36.

On the early emergence of reverse transcription: theoretical basis and experimental evidence.

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  • 1Departamento de Biología, Facultad de Ciencias-UNAM, México, D.F.
  • 2U Houston, TX


Reverse transcriptase (RT) was first discovered as an essential catalyst in the biological cycle of retroviruses. However, in the past years evidence has accumulated showing that RTs are involved in a surprisingly large number of RNA-mediated transpositional events that include both viral and nonviral genetic entities. Although it is probable that some RT-bearing genetic elements like the different types of AIDS viruses and the mammalian LINE family have arisen in recent geological times, the possibility that reverse transcription first took place in the early Archean is supported by (1) the hypothesis that RNA preceded DNA as cellular genetic material; (2) the existence of homologous regions of the subunit tau of the E. coli DNA polymerase III with the simian immunodeficiency virus RT, the hepatitis B virus RT, and the beta' subunit of the E. coli RNA polymerase (McHenry et al. 1988); (3) the presence of several conserved motifs, including a 14-amino-acid segment that consists of an Asp-Asp pair flanked by hydrophobic amino acids, which are found in all RTs and in most cellular and viral RNA polymerases. However, whether extant RTs descend from the primitive polymerase involved in the RNA-to-DNA transition remains unproven. Substrate specificity of the AMV and HIV-1 RTs can be modified in the presence of Mn2+, a cation which allows them to add ribonucleotides to an oligo (dG) primer in a template-dependent reaction. This change in specificity is comparable to that observed under similar conditions in other nucleic acid polymerases. This experimentally induced change in RT substrate specificity may explain previous observations on the misincorporation of ribonucleotides by the Maloney murine sarcoma virus RT in the minus and plus DNA of this retrovirus (Chen and Temin 1980). Our results also suggest that HIV-infected macrophages and T-cell cells may contain mixed polynucleotides containing both ribo- and deoxyribonucleotides. The evolutionary significance of these changes in substrate specificities of nucleic acid polymerases is also discussed.

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