A new RNA molecule created by University of Colorado scientists can catalyze a key reaction needed to synthesize proteins. The discovery may have significant implications, researchers say, because it further substantiates the 'RNA World' hypothesis, which proposes that life on Earth evolved from early forms of RNA. The research is detailed this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Because proteins are complex, their origin has always confounded scientists. But "it now appears that the first catalytic macromolecules could have been RNA molecules, since they are somewhat simpler, were likely to exist early in the formation of the first life forms, and are capable of catalyzing chemical reactions without proteins being present," said CU biologist Michael Yarus.

Yarus noted that the RNA World hypothesis was complicated by the fact that RNA molecules are hard to make. "This work shows that RNA enzymes could have been far smaller, and therefore far easier to make under primitive conditions, than anyone has expected."

If very simple RNA molecules such as the one produced in the study could have accelerated chemical reactions in Earth's primordial stew, the chances are much greater that RNA could direct and accelerate biochemical reactions under primitive conditions.

Before the advent of RNA, most biologists believe, there was a simpler world of chemical replicators that could only make more of themselves, given the raw materials of the time, Yarus said.

"If there exists that kind of mini-catalyst, a 'sister' to the one we describe, the world of the replicators would also jump a long step closer and we could really feel we were closing in on the first things on Earth that could undergo Darwinian evolution," Yarus said.

"In other words, we may have taken a substantial step toward the very origin of Earthly life," he said. "However, keep well in mind that the tiny replicator has not been found, and that its existence will be decided by experiments not yet done, perhaps not yet imagined."

Citation: Rebecca M. Turka, Nataliya V. Chumachenkob, Michael Yarus, 'Multiple translational products from a five-nucleotide ribozyme', PNAS, February 2010; doi:10.1073/pnas.0912895107