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PLoS Comput Biol. 2008 Mar 7;4(3):e1000018. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1000018.

Evolutionary patterns in the sequence and structure of transfer RNA: early origins of archaea and viruses.

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  • 1Department of Crop Sciences, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Urbana, Illinois, United States of America.


Transfer RNAs (tRNAs) are ancient molecules that are central to translation. Since they probably carry evolutionary signatures that were left behind when the living world diversified, we reconstructed phylogenies directly from the sequence and structure of tRNA using well-established phylogenetic methods. The trees placed tRNAs with long variable arms charging Sec, Tyr, Ser, and Leu consistently at the base of the rooted phylogenies, but failed to reveal groupings that would indicate clear evolutionary links to organismal origin or molecular functions. In order to uncover evolutionary patterns in the trees, we forced tRNAs into monophyletic groups using constraint analyses to generate timelines of organismal diversification and test competing evolutionary hypotheses. Remarkably, organismal timelines showed Archaea was the most ancestral superkingdom, followed by viruses, then superkingdoms Eukarya and Bacteria, in that order, supporting conclusions from recent phylogenomic studies of protein architecture. Strikingly, constraint analyses showed that the origin of viruses was not only ancient, but was linked to Archaea. Our findings have important implications. They support the notion that the archaeal lineage was very ancient, resulted in the first organismal divide, and predated diversification of tRNA function and specificity. Results are also consistent with the concept that viruses contributed to the development of the DNA replication machinery during the early diversification of the living world.

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