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Chem Biol. 1998 Jan;5(1):23-34.

A novel ribozyme with ester transferase activity.

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Institut für Biochemie der LMU München-Genzentrum, Germany.



The 'RNA world' hypothesis proposes that the early history of life on earth consisted of a period in which chemical transformations were catalyzed exclusively by ribozymes. Ribozymes that act as acyl transferases, or catalyze the formation of amide or peptide bonds seem particularly attractive candidates to link the RNA world to the modern protein-nucleic acid world. The central role played by aminoacylated RNAs in today's processes of translating RNA into protein suggests that aminoacyl transfer reactions catalyzed by RNA might have facilitated the development and optimization of the translation apparatus during early evolution.


We describe the isolation and characterization of a novel ribozyme that catalyzes the transfer of an amino-acid ester from an aminoacyl donor substrate onto the ribozyme itself. The site of aminoacylation was determined to be at an internal 2'-OH group of a cytosine residue. The aminoacylation depends on the presence of Mg2+ and can be competitively inhibited by the AMP moiety of the aminoacyl donor substrate, suggesting that there is a specific binding pocket for this substrate. The originally selected ribozyme was engineered to act as intermolecular catalyst that transfers the amino acid onto an external 28-residue oligonucleotide. The aminoacylated oligonucleotide was further used to quantify the reverse reaction catalyzed by the ribozyme.


The ribozyme we have isolated is an example of a catalytic RNA with ester transferase activity which uses a substrate that is not templated by Watson-Crick-pairing hydrogen bonds. The reaction catalyzed by the ribozyme expands the scope of RNA catalysis to include acyl transferase activity from an RNA 3' end to an internal 2' position and the reverse. Ribozymes with such activity have been postulated to be evolutionary precursors of ribosomal RNA.

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