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Rna World and The Origins Of Life

A typical cell contains about ten times as much RNA as DNA. The high RNA content is mainly due to the variety of roles played by RNA in the cell. Fraenkel-Conrat and Singer (1957) first demonstrated that RNA is the genetic material in RNA containing viruses like TMV (Tobacco Mosaic Virus) and they separated RNA from the protein of TMV viruses.

Three molecular biologists in the early 1980’s (Leslie Orgel, Francis Brick and Carl Woese) independently proposed the ‘RNA world’ as the first stage in the evolution of life, a stage when RNA catalysed all molecules necessary for survival and replication. The term ‘RNA world’ first used by Walter Gilbert in 1986, hypothesizes RNA as the first genetic material on earth.

There is now enough evidence to suggest that essential life processes (such as metabolism, translation, splicing etc.,) evolved around RNA. RNA has the ability to act as both genetic material and catalyst. There are several biochemical reactions in living systems that are catalysed by RNA. This catalytic RNA is known as ribozyme. But, RNA being a catalyst was reactive and hence unstable.

This led to evolution of a more stable form of DNA, with certain chemical modifications. Since DNA is a double stranded molecule having complementary strand, it has resisted changes by evolving a process of repair. Some RNA molecules function as gene regulators by binding to DNA and affect gene expression. Some viruses use RNA as the genetic material.

Andrew Fire and Craig Mellow (recipients of Nobel Prize in 2006) were of the opinion that RNA is an active ingredient in the chemistry of life. The types of RNA and their role have been discussed in class XI.