Sunday, 3 March 2013

Research into The RNA World Hypothesis

It is possible that the RNA world hypothesis is the answer,
not only to the question of how life originated on Earth,
but how it might have formed on other planets.
Imagine a world in miniature, a world that exists at the smallest of scales, a world in which bacteria look massive: this is the RNA world. In the same way organisms are constructed around information contained within DNA, a system of self perpetuating chemical reactions built around the simpler RNA, creates a molecular facsimile of life. Since this theory was first proposed in the 1960s, it has gathered force. Multiple studies of the molecular interactions between nucleic acids and their precursors have shown how the RNA world may have worked. The picture we currently have is very detailed. Yet RNA is an unstable molecule so how could it have formed in the first place?

The base pairs in the nucleic acid will only join together when they are connected to a polymer backbone. In the case of RNA this is composed of conjoined sections of phosphate and sugar. A team of chemists from the Georgia Institute of Technology, however, have shown that by attaching a small chemical group to the base pairs, it is possible for the various parts of RNA to form the complete molecule spontaneously.

The team found that they formed linear chains of up to 18,000 sections long, similar in length to genes. The only difference between these structures and true RNA is that the latter is flanked by a polymer backbone. The team have stated that their next goal is to try and recreate the backbone in conjunction with their proto-genes to try and form a true strand of RNA from its disparate components. What is intriguing is that while the study has profound implications for where the RNA world may have come from and how it may have worked, the potential applications of the results extend far beyond palaeontology.

It is possible that in the future we may see a technological version of the RNA world with self assembling machines that exist on the molecular level. We are currently trying to build machines that emulate living organisms. Perhaps, just like true life, they will need to evolve from older and more primitive systems. What we can say is that we are one step closer to understanding how life could have arisen on the planet.