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J Struct Biol. 2017 May;198(2):74-81. doi: 10.1016/j.jsb.2017.04.007. Epub 2017 Apr 26.

Ribosomal proteins as documents of the transition from unstructured (poly)peptides to folded proteins.

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Department of Protein Evolution, Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology, 72076 Tübingen, Germany. Electronic address:
Department of Protein Evolution, Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology, 72076 Tübingen, Germany.


For the most part, contemporary proteins can be traced back to a basic set of a few thousand domain prototypes, many of which were already established in the Last Universal Common Ancestor of life on Earth, around 3.5 billion years ago. The origin of these domain prototypes, however, remains poorly understood. One hypothesis posits that they arose from an ancestral set of peptides, which acted as cofactors of RNA-mediated catalysis and replication. Initially, these peptides were entirely dependent on the RNA scaffold for their structure, but as their complexity increased, they became able to form structures by excluding water through hydrophobic contacts, making them independent of the RNA scaffold. Their ability to fold was thus an emergent property of peptide-RNA coevolution. The ribosome is the main survivor of this primordial RNA world and offers an excellent model system for retracing the steps that led to the folded proteins of today, due to its very slow rate of change. Close to the peptidyl transferase center, which is the oldest part of the ribosome, proteins are extended and largely devoid of secondary structure; further from the center, their secondary structure content increases and supersecondary topologies become common, although the proteins still largely lack a hydrophobic core; at the ribosomal periphery, supersecondary structures coalesce around hydrophobic cores, forming folds that resemble those seen in proteins of the cytosol. Collectively, ribosomal proteins thus offer a window onto the time when proteins were acquiring the ability to fold.


Ancient peptides; Protein evolution; Protein folding; RNA; Ribosomal protein; Ribosome; Secondary structure

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