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Biochemistry. 2018 Nov 13;57(45):6382-6386. doi: 10.1021/acs.biochem.8b01080. Epub 2018 Nov 5.

pH-Driven RNA Strand Separation under Prebiotically Plausible Conditions.

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MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology , Francis Crick Avenue, Cambridge Biomedical Campus , Cambridge CB2 0QH , U.K.


Replication of nucleic acids in the absence of genetically encoded enzymes represents a critical process for the emergence of cellular life. Repeated separation of complementary RNA strands is required to achieve multiple cycles of chemical replication, yet thermal denaturation under plausible prebiotic conditions is impaired by the high temperatures required to separate long RNA strands and by concurrent degradation pathways, the latter accelerated by divalent metal ions. Here we show how the melting temperature of oligoribonucleotide duplexes can be tuned by changes in pH, enabling the separation of RNA strands at moderate temperatures. At the same time, the risk of phosphodiester bond cleavage is reduced under the acid denaturation conditions herein described, both in the presence and in the absence of divalent metal ions. Through a combination of ultraviolet and circular dichroism thermal studies and gel electrophoresis, we demonstrate the relevance of geological pH oscillations in the context of the RNA strand separation problem. Our results reveal new insights in the field of prebiotic chemistry, supporting plausible geochemical scenarios in which non-enzymatic RNA replication might have taken place.

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