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Gene. 2005 Feb 14;346:205-14.

A surface-mediated origin of the RNA world: biogenic activities of clay-adsorbed RNA molecules.

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Department of Animal Biology and Genetics, University of Florence. Via Romana 17, 50125 Florence, Italy.


The involvement of clay surfaces in the origin of the first genetic molecules on Earth has long been suggested. However, the formation of these polymers was not sufficient by itself to initiate the evolutionary process leading to the appearance of life. These macromolecules had to persist in primeval habitats so that their biological potentiality could be expressed. In this study, we assess the possibility of development of the RNA world on a clay substrate by investigating the capacity of different RNA molecules adsorbed/bound on the clay minerals montmorillonite (M) and kaolinite (K) to persist in the presence of a degrading agent (RNase-A), to interact specifically with complementary RNA strands, and to transmit the information contained in their nucleotide sequences. The RNase-A degradation of clay-adsorbed 23S rRNA from Escherichia coli was significantly slower (75-80%) than that observed for free rRNA, and the complete digestion of nucleic acid in the presence of clay was obtained in 2 vs. 1 h. Clay-adsorbed Poly[A] homopolymer was able to recognize the complementary Poly[U] homopolymer present in the surrounding water solution and to establish a specific interaction (association) with it, possibly leading to the formation of double strands. Reverse transcription and amplification (RT-PCR) amplification of free and clay-adsorbed 16S indicated that the presence of clay particles partially reduced the efficiency and processivity of reverse transcriptase but did not inhibit its activity, demonstrating that clay-adsorbed RNA is still available for enzymatic replication. These findings indicate that primordial genetic molecules adsorbed on clay minerals would have been protected against degrading agents present in the environment and would have been in the right conditions to undergo evolutionary processes.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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