NCBI Bookshelf. A service of the National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.

Berg JM, Tymoczko JL, Stryer L. Biochemistry. 5th edition. New York: W H Freeman; 2002.

  • By agreement with the publisher, this book is accessible by the search feature, but cannot be browsed.
Cover of Biochemistry

Biochemistry. 5th edition.

Show details

Section 2.2Evolution Requires Reproduction, Variation, and Selective Pressure

Once the necessary building blocks were available, how did a living system arise and evolve? Before the appearance of life, simple molecular systems must have existed that subsequently evolved into the complex chemical systems that are characteristic of organisms. To address how this evolution occurred, we need to consider the process of evolution. There are several basic principles common to evolving systems, whether they are simple collections of molecules or competing populations of organisms. First, the most fundamental property of evolving systems is their ability to replicate or reproduce. Without this ability of reproduction, each “species” of molecule that might appear is doomed to extinction as soon as all its individual molecules degrade. For example, individual molecules of biological polymers such as ribonucleic acid are degraded by hydrolysis reactions and other processes. However, molecules that can replicate will continue to be represented in the population even if the lifetime of each individual molecule remains short.

A second principle fundamental to evolution is variation. The replicating systems must undergo changes. After all, if a system always replicates perfectly, the replicated molecule will always be the same as the parent molecule. Evolution cannot occur. The nature of these variations in living systems are considered in Section 2.2.5.

A third basic principle of evolution is competition. Replicating molecules compete with one another for available resources such as chemical precursors, and the competition allows the process of evolution by natural selection to occur. Variation will produce differing populations of molecules. Some variant offspring may, by chance, be better suited for survival and replication under the prevailing conditions than are their parent molecules. The prevailing conditions exert a selective pressure that gives an advantage to one of the variants. Those molecules that are best able to survive and to replicate themselves will increase in relative concentration. Thus, new molecules arise that are better able to replicate under the conditions of their environment. The same principles hold true for modern organisms. Organisms reproduce, show variation among individual organisms, and compete for resources; those variants with a selective advantage will reproduce more successfully. The changes leading to variation still take place at the molecular level, but the selective advantage is manifest at the organismal level.

2.2.1. The Principles of Evolution Can Be Demonstrated in Vitro

Is there any evidence that evolution can take place at the molecular level? In 1967, Sol Spiegelman showed that replicating molecules could evolve new forms in an experiment that allowed him to observe molecular evolution in the test tube. He used as his evolving molecules RNA molecules derived from a bacterial virus called bacteriophage Qβ. The genome of bacteriophage Qβ, a single RNA strand of approximately 3300 bases, depends for its replication on the activity of a protein complex termed Qβ replicase. Spiegelman mixed the replicase with a starting population of Qβ RNA molecules. Under conditions in which there are ample amounts of precursors, no time constraints, and no other selective pressures, the composition of the population does not change from that of the parent molecules on replication. When selective pressures are applied, however, the composition of the population of molecules can change dramatically. For example, decreasing the time available for replication from 20 minutes to 5 minutes yielded, incrementally over 75 generations, a population of molecules dominated by a single species comprising only 550 bases. This species is replicated 15 times as rapidly as the parental Qβ RNA (Figure 2.4). Spiegelman applied other selective pressures by, for example, limiting the concentrations of precursors or adding compounds that inhibit the replication process. In each case, new species appeared that replicated more effectively under the conditions imposed.

Figure 2.4. Evolution in a Test Tube.

Figure 2.4

Evolution in a Test Tube. Rapidly replicating species of RNA molecules were generated from Qβ RNA by exerting selective pressure. The green and blue curves correspond to species of intermediate size that accumulated and then became extinct in (more...)

The process of evolution demonstrated in these studies depended on the existence of machinery for the replication of RNA fragments in the form of the Qβ replicase. As noted in Chapter 1, one of the most elegant characteristics of nucleic acids is that the mechanism for their replication follows naturally from their molecular structure. This observation suggests that nucleic acids, perhaps RNA, could have become self-replicating. Indeed, the results of studies have revealed that single-stranded nucleic acids can serve as templates for the synthesis of their complementary strands and that this synthesis can occur spontaneously—that is, without biologically derived replication machinery. However, investigators have not yet found conditions in which an RNA molecule is fully capable of independent selfreplication from simple starting materials.

2.2.2. RNA Molecules Can Act As Catalysts

The development of capabilities beyond simple replication required the generation of specific catalysts. A catalyst is a molecule that accelerates a particular chemical reaction without itself being chemically altered in the process. The properties of catalysts will be discussed in detail in Chapters 8 and 9. Some catalysts are highly specific; they promote certain reactions without substantially affecting closely related processes. Such catalysts allow the reactions of specific pathways to take place in preference to those of potential alternative pathways. Until the 1980s, all biological catalysts, termed enzymes, were believed to be proteins. Then, Tom Cech and Sidney Altman independently discovered that certain RNA molecules can be effective catalysts. These RNA catalysts have come to be known as ribozymes. The discovery of ribozymes suggested the possibility that catalytic RNA molecules could have played fundamental roles early in the evolution of life.

The catalytic ability of RNA molecules is related to their ability to adopt specific yet complex structures. This principle is illustrated by a “hammerhead” ribozyme, an RNA structure first identified in plant viruses (Figure 2.5). This RNA molecule promotes the cleavage of specific RNA molecules at specific sites; this cleavage is necessary for certain aspects of the viral life cycle. The ribozyme, which requires Mg2+ ion or other ions for the cleavage step to take place, forms a complex with its substrate RNA molecule that can adopt a reactive conformation.

Image mouse.jpg This icon, appearing throughout the book, indicates an opportunity to explore further resources available on the Biochemistry Web site; This icon in a figure caption indicates a Living Figure that allows you to interact with three-dimensional representations of the illustration. Go to the Website and select the chapter and figure number.

Figure 2.5. Catalytic RNA.

Figure 2.5

Catalytic RNA. Image mouse.jpg (A) The base-pairing pattern of a “hammerhead” ribozyme and its substrate. (B) The folded conformation of the complex. The ribozyme cleaves the bond at the cleavage site. The paths of the nucleic acid backbones are highlighted (more...)

The existence of RNA molecules that possess specific binding and catalytic properties makes plausible the idea of an early “RNA world” inhabited by life forms dependent on RNA molecules to play all major roles, including those important in heredity, the storage of information, and the promotion of specific reactions—that is, biosynthesis and energy metabolism.

2.2.3. Amino Acids and Their Polymers Can Play Biosynthetic and Catalytic Roles

In the early RNA world, the increasing populations of replicating RNA molecules would have consumed the building blocks of RNA that had been generated over long periods of time by prebiotic reactions. A shortage of these compounds would have favored the evolution of alternative mechanisms for their synthesis. A large number of pathways are possible. Examining the biosynthetic routes utilized by modern organisms can be a source of insight into which pathways survived. A striking observation is that simple amino acids are used as building blocks for the RNA bases (Figure 2.6). For both purines (adenine and guanine) and pyrimidines (uracil and cytosine), an amino acid serves as a core onto which the remainder of the base is elaborated. In addition, nitrogen atoms are donated by the amino group of the amino acid aspartic acid and by the amide group of the glutamine side chain.

Figure 2.6. Biosynthesis of RNA Bases.

Figure 2.6

Biosynthesis of RNA Bases. Amino acids are building blocks for the biosynthesis of purines and pyrimidines.

Amino acids are chemically more versatile than nucleic acids because their side chains carry a wider range of chemical functionality. Thus, amino acids or short polymers of amino acids linked by peptide bonds, called polypeptides (Figure 2.7), may have functioned as components of ribozymes to provide a specific reactivity. Furthermore, longer polypeptides are capable of spontaneously folding to form well-defined three-dimensional structures, dictated by the sequence of amino acids along their polypeptide chains. The ability of polypeptides to fold spontaneously into elaborate structures, which permit highly specific chemical interactions with other molecules, may have favored the expansion of their roles in the course of evolution and is crucial to their dominant position in modern organisms. Today, most biological catalysts (enzymes) are not nucleic acids but are instead large polypeptides called proteins.

Figure 2.7. An Alternative Functional Polymer.

Figure 2.7

An Alternative Functional Polymer. Proteins are built of amino acids linked by peptide bonds.

2.2.4. RNA Template-Directed Polypeptide Synthesis Links the RNA and Protein Worlds

Polypeptides would have played only a limited role early in the evolution of life because their structures are not suited to self-replication in the way that nucleic acid structures are. However, polypeptides could have been included in evolutionary processes indirectly. For example, if the properties of a particular polypeptide favored the survival and replication of a class of RNA molecules, then these RNA molecules could have evolved ribozyme activities that promoted the synthesis of that polypeptide. This method of producing polypeptides with specific amino acid sequences has several limitations. First, it seems likely that only relatively short specific polypeptides could have been produced in this manner. Second, it would have been difficult to accurately link the particular amino acids in the polypeptide in a reproducible manner. Finally, a different ribozyme would have been required for each polypeptide. A critical point in evolution was reached when an apparatus for polypeptide synthesis developed that allowed the sequence of bases in an RNA molecule to directly dictate the sequence of amino acids in a polypeptide. A code evolved that established a relation between a specific sequence of three bases in RNA and an amino acid. We now call this set of three-base combinations, each encoding an amino acid, the genetic code. A decoding, or translation, system exists today as the ribosome and associated factors that are responsible for essentially all polypeptide synthesis from RNA templates in modern organisms. The essence of this mode of polypeptide synthesis is illustrated in Figure 2.8.

Figure 2.8. Linking the RNA and Protein Worlds.

Figure 2.8

Linking the RNA and Protein Worlds. Polypeptide synthesis is directed by an RNA template. Adaptor RNA molecules, with amino acids attached, sequentially bind to the template RNA to facilitate the formation of a peptide bond between two amino acids. The (more...)

An RNA molecule (messenger RNA, or mRNA), containing in its base sequence the information that specifies a particular protein, acts as a template to direct the synthesis of the polypeptide. Each amino acid is brought to the template attached to an adapter molecule specific to that amino acid. These adapters are specialized RNA molecules (called transfer RNAs or tRNAs). After initiation of the polypeptide chain, a tRNA molecule with its associated amino acid binds to the template through specific Watson-Crick base-pairing interactions. Two such molecules bind to the ribosome and peptide-bond formation is catalyzed by an RNA component (called ribosomal RNA or rRNA) of the ribosome. The first RNA departs (with neither the polypeptide chain nor an amino acid attached) and another tRNA with its associated amino acid bonds to the ribosome. The growing polypeptide chain is transferred to this newly bound amino acid with the formation of a new peptide bond. This cycle then repeats itself. This scheme allows the sequence of the RNA template to encode the sequence of the polypeptide and thereby makes possible the production of long polypeptides with specified sequences. The mechanism of protein synthesis will be discussed in Chapter 29. Importantly, the ribosome is composed largely of RNA and is a highly sophisticated ribozyme, suggesting that it might be a surviving relic of the RNA world.

2.2.5. The Genetic Code Elucidates the Mechanisms of Evolution

The sequence of bases that encodes a functional protein molecule is called a gene. The genetic code—that is, the relation between the base sequence of a gene and the amino acid sequence of the polypeptide whose synthesis the gene directs—applies to all modern organisms with only very minor exceptions. This universality reveals that the genetic code was fixed early in the course of evolution and has been maintained to the present day.

We can now examine the mechanisms of evolution. Earlier, we considered how variation is required for evolution. We can now see that such variations in living systems are changes that alter the meaning of the genetic message. These variations are called mutations. A mutation can be as simple as a change in a single nucleotide (called a point mutation), such that a sequence of bases that encoded a particular amino acid may now encode another (Figure 2.9A). A mutation can also be the insertion or deletion of several nucleotides.

Figure 2.9. Mechanisms of Evolution.

Figure 2.9

Mechanisms of Evolution. A change in a gene can be (A) as simple as a single base change or (B) as dramatic as partial or complete gene duplication.

Other types of alteration permit the more rapid evolution of new biochemical activities. For instance, entire sections of the coding material can be duplicated, a process called gene duplication (Figure 2.9B). One of the duplication products may accumulate mutations and eventually evolve into a gene with a different, but related, function. Furthermore, parts of a gene may be duplicated and added to parts of another to give rise to a completely new gene, which encodes a protein with properties associated with each parent gene. Higher organisms contain many large families of enzymes and other macromolecules that are clearly related to one another in the same manner. Thus, gene duplication followed by specialization has been a crucial process in evolution. It allows the generation of macromolecules having particular functions without the need to start from scratch. The accumulation of genes with subtle and large differences allows for the generation of more complex biochemical processes and pathways and thus more complex organisms.

2.2.6. Transfer RNAs Illustrate Evolution by Gene Duplication

Transfer RNA molecules are the adaptors that associate an amino acid with its correct base sequence. Transfer RNA molecules are structurally similar to one another: each adopts a three-dimensional cloverleaf pattern of base-paired groups (Figure 2.10). Subtle differences in structure enable the protein-synthesis machinery to distinguish transfer RNA molecules with different amino acid specificities.

Figure 2.10. Cloverleaf Pattern of tRNA.

Figure 2.10

Cloverleaf Pattern of tRNA. The pattern of base-pairing interactions observed for all transfer RNA molecules reveals that these molecules had a common evolutionary origin.

This family of related RNA molecules likely was generated by gene duplication followed by specialization. A nucleic acid sequence encoding one member of the family was duplicated, and the two copies evolved independently to generate molecules with specificities for different amino acids. This process was repeated, starting from one primordial transfer RNA gene until the 20 (or more) distinct members of the transfer RNA family present in modern organisms arose.

2.2.7. DNA Is a Stable Storage Form for Genetic Information

It is plausible that RNA was utilized to store genetic information early in the history of life. However, in modern organisms (with the exception of some viruses), the RNA derivative DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) performs this function (Sections 1.1.1 and 1.1.3). The 2′-hydroxyl group in the ribose unit of the RNA backbone is replaced by a hydrogen atom in DNA (Figure 2.11).

Figure 2.11. RNA and DNA Compared.

Figure 2.11

RNA and DNA Compared. Removal of the 2′-hydroxyl group from RNA to form DNA results in a backbone that is less susceptible to cleavage by hydrolysis and thus enables more-stable storage of genetic information.

What is the selective advantage of DNA over RNA as the genetic material? The genetic material must be extremely stable so that sequence information can be passed on from generation to generation without degradation. RNA itself is a remarkably stable molecule; negative charges in the sugar-phosphate backbone protect it from attack by hydroxide ions that would lead to hydrolytic cleavage. However, the 2′-hydroxyl group makes the RNA susceptible to base-catalyzed hydrolysis. The removal of the 2′-hydroxyl group from the ribose decreases the rate of hydrolysis by approximately 100-fold under neutral conditions and perhaps even more under extreme conditions. Thus, the conversion of the genetic material from RNA into DNA would have substantially increased its chemical stability.

The evolutionary transition from RNA to DNA is recapitulated in the biosynthesis of DNA in modern organisms. In all cases, the building blocks used in the synthesis of DNA are synthesized from the corresponding building blocks of RNA by the action of enzymes termed ribonucleotide reductases. These enzymes convert ribonucleotides (a base and phosphate groups linked to a ribose sugar) into deoxyribonucleotides (a base and phosphates linked to deoxyribose sugar).

Image ch2fu2.jpg

The properties of the ribonucleotide reductases vary substantially from species to species, but evidence suggests that they have a common mechanism of action and appear to have evolved from a common primordial enzyme.

The covalent structures of RNA and DNA differ in one other way. Whereas RNA contains uracil, DNA contains a methylated uracil derivative termed thymine. This modification also serves to protect the integrity of the genetic sequence, although it does so in a less direct manner. As we will see in Chapter 27, the methyl group present in thymine facilitates the repair of damaged DNA, providing an additional selective advantage.

Although DNA replaced RNA in the role of storing the genetic information, RNA maintained many of its other functions. RNA still provides the template that directs polypeptide synthesis, the adaptor molecules, the catalytic activity of the ribosomes, and other functions. Thus, the genetic message is transcribed from DNA into RNA and then translated into protein.

Image ch2fu3.jpg

This flow of sequence information from DNA to RNA to protein (to be considered in detail in Chapters 5, 28, and 29) applies to all modern organisms (with minor exceptions for certain viruses).

By agreement with the publisher, this book is accessible by the search feature, but cannot be browsed.

Copyright © 2002, W. H. Freeman and Company.
Bookshelf ID: NBK22508