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PLoS One. 2012;7(1):e29952. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0029952. Epub 2012 Jan 23.

Less can be more: RNA-adapters may enhance coding capacity of replicators.

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Theoretical Biology and Bioinformatics, Universiteit Utrecht, Utrecht, The Netherlands.


It is still not clear how prebiotic replicators evolved towards the complexity found in present day organisms. Within the most realistic scenario for prebiotic evolution, known as the RNA world hypothesis, such complexity has arisen from replicators consisting solely of RNA. Within contemporary life, remarkably many RNAs are involved in modifying other RNAs. In hindsight, such RNA-RNA modification might have helped in alleviating the limits of complexity posed by the information threshold for RNA-only replicators. Here we study the possible role of such self-modification in early evolution, by modeling the evolution of protocells as evolving replicators, which have the opportunity to incorporate these mechanisms as a molecular tool. Evolution is studied towards a set of 25 arbitrary 'functional' structures, while avoiding all other (misfolded) structures, which are considered to be toxic and increase the death-rate of a protocell. The modeled protocells contain a genotype of different RNA-sequences while their phenotype is the ensemble of secondary structures they can potentially produce from these RNA-sequences. One of the secondary structures explicitly codes for a simple sequence-modification tool. This 'RNA-adapter' can block certain positions on other RNA-sequences through antisense base-pairing. The altered sequence can produce an alternative secondary structure, which may or may not be functional. We show that the modifying potential of interacting RNA-sequences enables these protocells to evolve high fitness under high mutation rates. Moreover, our model shows that because of toxicity of misfolded molecules, redundant coding impedes the evolution of self-modification machinery, in effect restraining the evolvability of coding structures. Hence, high mutation rates can actually promote the evolution of complex coding structures by reducing redundant coding. Protocells can successfully use RNA-adapters to modify their genotype-phenotype mapping in order to enhance the coding capacity of their genome and fit more information on smaller sized genomes.

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