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Chem Biol. 1997 Aug;4(8):607-17.

Isolation of novel ribozymes that ligate AMP-activated RNA substrates.

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  • 1Department of Molecular Biology, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA 02114, USA.



The protein enzymes RNA ligase and DNA ligase catalyze the ligation of nucleic acids via an adenosine-5'-5'-pyrophosphate 'capped' RNA or DNA intermediate. The activation of nucleic acid substrates by adenosine 5'-monophosphate (AMP) may be a vestige of 'RNA world' catalysis. AMP-activated ligation seems ideally suited for catalysis by ribozymes (RNA enzymes), because an RNA motif capable of tightly and specifically binding AMP has previously been isolated.


We used in vitro selection and directed evolution to explore the ability of ribozymes to catalyze the template-directed ligation of AMP-activated RNAs. We subjected a pool of 10(15) RNA molecules, each consisting of long random sequences flanking a mutagenized adenosine triphosphate (ATP) aptamer, to ten rounds of in vitro selection, including three rounds involving mutagenic polymerase chain reaction. Selection was for the ligation of an oligonucleotide to the 5'-capped active pool RNA species. Many different ligase ribozymes were isolated; these ribozymes had rates of reaction up to 0.4 ligations per hour, corresponding to rate accelerations of approximately 5 x10(5) over the templated, but otherwise uncatalyzed, background reaction rate. Three characterized ribozymes catalyzed the formation of 3'-5'-phosphodiester bonds and were highly specific for activation by AMP at the ligation site.


The existence of a new class of ligase ribozymes is consistent with the hypothesis that the unusual mechanism of the biological ligases resulted from a conservation of mechanism during an evolutionary replacement of a primordial ribozyme ligase by a more modern protein enzyme. The newly isolated ligase ribozymes may also provide a starting point for the isolation of ribozymes that catalyze the polymerization of AMP-activated oligonucleotides or mononucleotides, which might have been the prebiotic analogs of nucleoside triphosphates.

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