Genomics, Proteomics, & Cell Biology

A Prebiotic Genetic Alphabet As An Early Darwinian Ancestor For Pre-RNA Evolution

By Keith Cowing
Press Release
March 24, 2023
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A Prebiotic Genetic Alphabet As An Early Darwinian Ancestor For Pre-RNA Evolution
Synthesis of BaTP. Scheme depicting various steps in the chemical synthesis of the prebiotic genetic alphabet Barbitudine and its corresponding triphosphate Barbitudine triphosphate (BaTP) 44 — biorxiv

RNA-based genetic code is thought to be central to life’s emergence due to its dual ability for information transfer and catalysis. Nonetheless, the genetic code of early life was potentially not restricted to canonical genetic alphabets alone.

The presence of an extensive repertoire of modified nucleobases in extant biology as ‘signatures of the past’, highlights the relevance of non-canonical alphabets, ably strengthened by experiments demonstrating their ready conversion into nucleosides and nucleotides.

All these strongly support a pre-RNA World, wherein informational molecules are posited to have contained alternate genetic alphabets. Nevertheless, understanding pre-RNA molecules’ capacity to acquire emergent function has remained less prevalent. Further, the steps involved in their transition to a canonical RNA World has not been systematically studied in the origins of life framework.

In this study, we report the synthesis of a prebiotically relevant genetic alphabet containing the non-canonical nucleobase, barbituric acid. We demonstrate for the first instance the enzymatic incorporation of this prebiotically plausible alphabet (BaTP) into an RNA, using proteinaceous T7 RNA polymerase.

Pertinently, the incorporation of this genetic alphabet into a baby spinach aptamer did not affect its overall secondary structure, while also allowing it to retain its aptameric function. Furthermore, we demonstrate the faithful transfer of genetic information from pre-RNA-containing barbitudine nucleotides to DNA, using a high-fidelity RNA-dependent DNA polymerase. These findings allude to a putative pathway for the early molecular evolution of the genetic code of extant life.

Anupam A. Sawant, Sneha Tripathi, Sanjeev Galande, Sudha Rajamani
Full paper,


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