Nearly every organism on earth uses DNA to encode chunks of genetic information in genes, which are then copied into RNA. With the aid of specialized enzymes known as polymerases, RNA assembles amino acids to form essential proteins. Remarkably, the basic functioning of the genetic code remains the same, whether the organism is a snail or a senator, pointing to a common ancestor in the DNA-based microbial life already flourishing some 3.5 billion years ago.
Nevertheless, such ancestors were by this time quite complex, leading some scientists to speculate about still earlier forms of self-replication. Before DNA emerged to play its dominant role as the design blueprint for life, a simpler genetic world dominated by RNA may have prevailed. The RNA world hypothesis as it's known alleges that ribonucleic acid (RNA) acted to store genetic information and catalyze chemical reactions much like a protein enzyme, in an epoch before DNA, RNA and proteins formed the integrated system prevalent today throughout the living world.
While the iconic double helix of DNA is formed from two complimentary strands of nucleotides, attached to each other by base pairing in a helical staircase, RNA is single-stranded. The two nucleic acids DNA and RNA are named for the type of sugar complex that forms each molecule's sugar-phosphate backbonea kind of molecular thread holding the nucleotide beads together.
Could a simpler, self-replicating molecule have existed as a precursor to RNA, perhaps providing genetic material for earth's earliest organisms? Chaput's experiments with the nucleic acid TNA provide an attractive case. To begin with, TNA uses tetrose sugars, named for the four-carbon ring porti
|Contact: Joseph Caspermeyer|
Arizona State University