CRC 235 Emergence of Life

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Regioselective formation of RNA strands in the absence of magnesium ions

S. Motsch et. al. 2020 Nuc. Acids. Res.


Sebastian Motsch, Peter Tremmel, and Clemens Richert

Nuc. Acids Res.


The oligomerization of ribonucleotides can produce short RNA strands in the absence of enzymes. This reaction gives one of two regioisomeric phosphodiester linkages, a 2′,5′- or a 3′,5′-diester. The former, non-natural linkage is detrimental for duplex stability, and is known to form preferentially in oligomerizations occurring in homogeneous solution with preactivated nucleotides in the presence of magnesium cations. We have studied ribonucleotide oligomerization with in situ activation, using NMR as monitoring technique. Unexpectedly, the known preference for 2′,5′-linkages in the oligomerization of AMP was reversed in the absence of magnesium ions at slightly basic pH. Further, oligomerization was surprisingly efficient in the absence of Mg2+ salts, producing oligomers long enough for duplex formation. A quantitative systems chemistry analysis then revealed that the absence of magnesium ions favors the activation of nucleotides, and that the high concentration of active species can compensate for slower coupling. Further, organocatalytic intermediates can help to overcome the unfavorable regioselectivity of the magnesium-catalyzed reactions. Our findings allay concerns that RNA may have been difficult to form in the absence of enzymes. They also show that there is an efficient path to genetic material that does not require mineral surfaces or cations known to catalyze RNA hydrolysis.