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Nonenzymatic Template-Directed RNA Synthesis Inside Model Protocells

Science  29 Nov 2013:
Vol. 342, Issue 6162, pp. 1098-1100
DOI: 10.1126/science.1241888

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Protecting Self-Replicating RNA?

The potential for self-replication makes RNA an attractive candidate as a primordial catalysis in the origin of life. Catalysis may have occurred in some kind of compartment, possibly a fatty acid vesicle. However, RNA catalysis generally requires high levels of magnesium, which are incompatible with fatty acid vesicle integrity. Adamala and Szostak (p. 1098) screened magnesium chelators and found that several—including citrate, isocitrate, and oxalate—could maintain the membrane stability of fatty acid vesicles in the presence of Mg2+. Citrate also allowed Mg2+-dependent RNA synthesis within protocell-like vesicles, while at the same time protecting RNA from Mg2+-catalyzed degradation.

Abstract

Efforts to recreate a prebiotically plausible protocell, in which RNA replication occurs within a fatty acid vesicle, have been stalled by the destabilizing effect of Mg2+ on fatty acid membranes. Here we report that the presence of citrate protects fatty acid membranes from the disruptive effects of high Mg2+ ion concentrations while allowing RNA copying to proceed, while also protecting single-stranded RNA from Mg2+-catalyzed degradation. This combination of properties has allowed us to demonstrate the chemical copying of RNA templates inside fatty acid vesicles, which in turn allows for an increase in copying efficiency by bathing the vesicles in a continuously refreshed solution of activated nucleotides.

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