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Orig Life Evol Biosph. 2008 Dec;38(6):517-33. doi: 10.1007/s11084-008-9148-z. Epub 2008 Oct 14.

The most conserved genome segments for life detection on Earth and other planets.

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Department of Molecular Biology, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Microbial Sciences Initiative, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA.


On Earth, very simple but powerful methods to detect and classify broad taxa of life by the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) are now standard practice. Using DNA primers corresponding to the 16S ribosomal RNA gene, one can survey a sample from any environment for its microbial inhabitants. Due to massive meteoritic exchange between Earth and Mars (as well as other planets), a reasonable case can be made for life on Mars or other planets to be related to life on Earth. In this case, the supremely sensitive technologies used to study life on Earth, including in extreme environments, can be applied to the search for life on other planets. Though the 16S gene has become the standard for life detection on Earth, no genome comparisons have established that the ribosomal genes are, in fact, the most conserved DNA segments across the kingdoms of life. We present here a computational comparison of full genomes from 13 diverse organisms from the Archaea, Bacteria, and Eucarya to identify genetic sequences conserved across the widest divisions of life. Our results identify the 16S and 23S ribosomal RNA genes as well as other universally conserved nucleotide sequences in genes encoding particular classes of transfer RNAs and within the nucleotide binding domains of ABC transporters as the most conserved DNA sequence segments across phylogeny. This set of sequences defines a core set of DNA regions that have changed the least over billions of years of evolution and provides a means to identify and classify divergent life, including ancestrally related life on other planets.

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