Michael P. Robertson and Gerald F. Joyce
Departments of Chemistry and Molecular Biology and The Skaggs Institute for Chemical Biology, The Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, California 92037
The general notion of an “RNA World” is that, in the early development of life on the Earth, genetic continuity was assured by the replication of RNA and genetically encoded proteins were not involved as catalysts. There is now strong evidence indicating that an RNA World did indeed exist before DNA- and protein-based life. However, arguments regarding whether life on Earth began with RNA are more tenuous. It might be imagined that all of the components of RNA were available in some prebiotic pool, and that these components assembled into replicating, evolving polynucleotides without the prior existence of any evolved macromolecules. A thorough consideration of this “RNA-first” view of the origin of life must reconcile concerns regarding the intractable mixtures that are obtained in experiments designed to simulate the chemistry of the primitive Earth. Perhaps these concerns will eventually be resolved, and recent experimental findings provide some reason for optimism. However, the problem of the origin of the RNA World is far from being solved, and it is fruitful to consider the alternative possibility that RNA was preceded by some other replicating, evolving molecule, just as DNA and proteins were preceded by RNA.
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