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RNA, Oligomers, Life -- Origin, Genetic recombination, Catalytic RNA


There are several plausible abiotic synthetic routes from prebiotic chemical materials to ribonucleotides and even short RNA oligomers. However, for refinement of the RNA World hypothesis to help explain the origins of life on the Earth, there needs to be a manner by which such oligomers can increase their length and expand their sequence diversity. Oligomers longer than at least 10-20 nucleotides would be needed for raw material for subsequent natural selection. Here, we explore spontaneous RNA-RNA recombination as a facile means by which such length and diversity enhancement could have been realized. Motivated by the discovery that RNA oligomers stored for long periods of time in the freezer expand their lengths, we systematically investigated RNA-RNA recombination processes. In addition to one known mechanism, we discovered at least three new mechanisms. In these, one RNA oligomer acts as a splint to catalyze the hybridization of two other oligomers and facilitates the attack of a 5'-OH, a 3'-OH, or a 2'-OH nucleophile of one oligomer onto a target atom of another. This leads to the displacement of one RNA fragment and the production of new recombinant oligomers. We show that this process can explain the spontaneous emergence of sequence complexity, both in vitro and in silico.


© 2019 Smail et al.; Published by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press for the RNA Society This article is distributed exclusively by the RNA Society for the first 12 months after the full-issue publication date (see After 12 months, it is available under a Creative Commons License (Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International), as described at



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