New Insight Into Possible Origins of Life: For the First Time Researchers Create an RNA Molecule That Replicates

Origin of Life Artist Concept

Origin of life artist’s conception.

Experiment sheds light on the molecular evolution of RNA.

Researchers at the University of Tokyo have for the first time been able to create an RNA molecule that replicates, diversifies, and develops complexity, following Darwinian evolution. This has provided the first empirical evidence that simple biological molecules can lead to the emergence of complex lifelike systems.

“Honestly, we initially doubted that such diverse RNAs could evolve and coexist.” — Ryo Mizuuchi

Life has many big questions, not least being where did we come from? Maybe you’ve seen the T-shirts with pictures going from ape to human (to tired office worker). But how about from simple molecule to complex cell to ape? For several decades, one hypothesis has been that RNA molecules (which are vital for cell functions) existed on primitive Earth, possibly with proteins and other biological molecules. Then around 4 billion years ago, they started to self-replicate and develop from a simple single molecule into diverse complex molecules. This step-by-step change possibly eventually led to the emergence of life as we know it — a beautiful array of animals, plants, and everything in between.

Although there have been many discussions about this theory, it has been difficult to physically create such RNA replication systems. However, in a study published in Nature Communications, Project Assistant Professor Ryo Mizuuchi and Professor Norikazu Ichihashi at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Tokyo, and their team, explain how they carried out a long-term RNA replication experiment in which they witnessed the transition from a chemical system towards biological complexity.

RNA Evolutionary Experiment

RNA molecules were incubated in water-in-oil droplets at 37 degrees Celsius for 5 hours. The solution was then diluted to one-fifth the concentration using new droplets containing RNA-free nutrients, and stirred vigorously. When this process was repeated multiple times, mutations occurred. Credit: © modified from Mizuuchi 2022

The team was truly excited by what it saw. “We found that the single RNA species evolved into a complex replication system: a replicator network comprising five types of RNAs with diverse interactions, supporting the plausibility of a long-envisioned evolutionary transition scenario,” said Mizuuchi.

Compared to previous empirical studies, this new result is novel because the team used a unique RNA replication system that can undergo Darwinian evolution, i.e., a self-perpetuating process of continuous change based on mutations and natural selection, which enabled different characteristics to emerge, and the ones that were adapted to the environment to survive.

“Honestly, we initially doubted that such diverse RNAs could evolve and coexist,” commented Mizuuchi. “In evolutionary biology, the ‘competitive exclusion principle’ states that more than one species cannot coexist if they are competing for the same resources. This means that the molecules must establish a way to use different resources one after another for sustained diversification. They are just molecules, so we wondered if it were possible for nonliving chemical species to spontaneously develop such innovation.”

So what next? According to Mizuuchi, “The simplicity of our molecular replication system, compared with biological organisms, allows us to examine evolutionary phenomena with unprecedented resolution. The evolution of complexity seen in our experiment is just the beginning. Many more events should occur towards the emergence of living systems.”

Of course, there are still many questions left to answer, but this research has provided further empirically based insight into a possible evolutionary route that an early RNA replicator may have taken on primitive Earth. As Mizuuchi said, “The results could be a clue to solving the ultimate question that human beings have been asking for thousands of years — what are the origins of life?”

Reference: “Evolutionary transition from a single RNA replicator to a multiple replicator network” by Ryo Mizuuchi, Taro Furubayashi and Norikazu Ichihashi, 18 March 2022, Nature Communications.
DOI: 10.1038/s41467-022-29113-x

This research is mainly supported by Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research (Assignment No.: JP19K23763, JP21H05867, JP15KT0080, JP18H04820, JP20H04859), JST PRESTO (Assignment No.: JPMJPR19KA), Astrobiology Center Project Research (Assignment No. AB021005).

28 Comments on "New Insight Into Possible Origins of Life: For the First Time Researchers Create an RNA Molecule That Replicates"

  1. RICHARD Ptice | March 18, 2022 at 6:12 am | Reply

    It seems obvious to this observer that the RNA and DNA proceeded from bacterial origins. Design, configuration, therefore other(perhaps all) biological functions result directly from elemental bacteria ?

    • Torbjörn Larsson | March 20, 2022 at 7:16 am | Reply

      The genetic and metabolic machinery has RNA at the core with DNA a later elaboration. They are trying to elaborate, from a biochemistry viewpoint, how the genetic machinert evolved in the first place.

  2. You are trying to rule out God. Why?

    • Morton Salzman | March 18, 2022 at 12:07 pm | Reply

      Which god, not Zeus I hope?

    • Peepee poopoo | March 18, 2022 at 5:05 pm | Reply

      Intelligent design via emergent phenomena

      • Torbjörn Larsson | March 20, 2022 at 7:20 am | Reply

        Your added name for the same superstition doesn’t work any better.

        Emergent phenomena appears in quantum field physics due to renormalization on different energy scales. That has nothing to do with biology as such, and that too is natural processes at work.

    • Torbjörn Larsson | March 20, 2022 at 7:17 am | Reply

      The suggested superstition isn’t even on the table. It has nothing to do with evolution science studying a natural process.

    • Edward Armstrong | March 21, 2022 at 1:52 pm | Reply

      In order to even start to rule something out it first needs to be defined and then proof provided that it ever actually existed.

      No valid evidence has ever been presented for the existence of any ‘god’ and you didn’t even indicate which one or three of the myriad of ‘gods’ mankind has invented you are trying to refer to.

  3. The problem with these experiments is the simple observation that all of them are done under conditions that didn’t exist billions of years ago. A lab filled with 21% oxygen, 400 ppm CO2 and totally protected from DNA damaging UV radiation from the Sun. When they can accomplish some results under “pre-biotic” conditions it might become credible.

  4. I think the title of this report is misleading. It isn’t the replication that they’ve accomplished, it’s the spontaneous diversity of replicas. They input replicase, which the Oxford Dictionary defines as “an enzyme that catalyzes the synthesis of a complementary RNA molecule using an RNA template”. The experiment is still a big deal.

    • Torbjörn Larsson | March 20, 2022 at 7:26 am | Reply

      It’s not a report, it is Tokyo University press release on a paper that it managed to publish in a Nature publication, and comparing versions it is their original title.

      It’s their press division that chose that, the scientists has no saying on that but the release material should be mostly theirs. You have to read the paper to understand it, but I think you got the basic idea well enough – it’s a biochemistry toy model that expose new features.

  5. Please change the title as it is not for the first time. See work by Joyce, Holliger, Lehman and Vaidya for literature review.

  6. Babu G. Ranganathan | March 19, 2022 at 7:12 am | Reply

    Babu G. Ranganathan*
    (B.A. Bible/Biology)

    THE CELL could not have evolved. A partially evolved cell would quickly disintegrate under the effects of random forces of the environment, especially without the protection of a complete and fully functioning cell membrane. A partially evolved cell cannot wait millions of years for chance to make it complete and living! In fact, it couldn’t have even reached the partially evolved state.

    CATCH-22 FOR EVOLUTIONARY ORIGIN OF LIFE

    Just having the right materials, elements, and conditions do not mean that life can arise by chance.

    Miller, in his famous experiment in 1953 showed that individual amino acids (the building blocks of life) could come into existence by chance. But, it’s not enough just to have amino acids. The various amino acids that make-up life must link together in a precise sequence, just like the letters in a sentence, to form functioning protein molecules. If they’re not in the right sequence the protein molecules won’t work. It has never been shown that various amino acids can bind together into a sequence by chance to form protein molecules. Even the simplest cell is made up of many millions of various protein molecules.

    What many don’t realize is that although oxygen is necessary for life’s processes, the presence of oxygen would prevent life from coming into being. This is because oxygen is destructive unless there are mechanisms already in place to control, direct, and regulate it, such as what we find in already existing forms of life.

    RNA and DNA are made up of molecules (nucleic acids) that must also exist in the right sequence. Furthermore, none of these sequential molecules, proteins, DNA, RNA, can function outside of a complete and living cell and all are mutually dependent on one another. One cannot come into existence without the other.

    Mathematicians have said any event in the universe with odds of 10 to 50th power or greater is impossible! The probability of just a single average size protein molecule arising by chance is 10 to the 65th power. The late great British scientist Sir Frederick Hoyle calculated that the odds of even the simplest cell coming into existence by chance is 10 to the 40,000th power! How large is this? Consider that the total number of atoms in our universe is 10 to the 82nd power.

    The cell could not have evolved. A partially evolved cell would quickly disintegrate under the effects of random forces of the environment, especially without the protection of a complete and fully functioning cell membrane. A partially evolved cell cannot wait millions of years for chance to make it complete and living! In fact, it couldn’t have even reached the partially evolved state.

    Alien beings, even if they do exist, could not have evolved. How could they have survived millions of years while the very biological structures, organs, and systems necessary for their survival were supposedly still evolving? Life, in any form (even a single-celled organism), must be complete, fully integrated, and fully-functioning from the very start to be fit for survival.

    Of course, once there is a complete and living cell then the code and mechanisms exist to direct the formation of more cells. The problem for evolutionists is how did the cell originate when there were no directing code and mechanisms in nature. Natural laws may explain how a cell or airplane works but mere undirected natural laws could not have brought about the existence of either.

    What about synthetic life? Scientists didn’t create life itself. What they’ve done is, by using intelligent design and sophisticated technology, scientists built DNA code from scratch and then they implanted that man-made DNA into an already existing living cell and alter that cell. That’s what synthetic life is.

    Through genetic engineering scientists have been able to produce new forms of life by altering already existing forms of life, but they have never created life from non-living matter. Even if they do, it won’t be by chance but by intelligent design. That doesn’t help the theory of evolution.

    What about natural selection? Natural selection doesn’t create or produce anything. It can only “select” from biological variations that are possible and which have survival value. If a variation occurs that helps a species survive, that survival is called ” natural selection.” It’s a passive process. There’s no conscious selection by nature, and natural selection only operates in nature once there is life and reproduction and not before, so it would not be of assistance to the origin of life.

    Science can’t prove we’re here by chance or design. Neither was observed. Both are positions of faith. The issue is which faith is best supported by science. Let the scientific arguments of both sides be presented.

    Read my popular Internet articles:

    THE NATURAL LIMITS TO EVOLUTION
    ANY LIFE ON MARS CAME FROM EARTH

    Visit my Internet site: THE SCIENCE SUPPORTING CREATION

    Author of the popular Internet article, TRADITIONAL DOCTRINE OF HELL EVOLVED FROM GREEK ROOTS

    *I have given successful lectures (with question and answer period afterwards) defending creation before evolutionist science faculty and students at various colleges and universities. I’ve been privileged to be recognized in the 24th edition of Marquis “Who’s Who in The East” for my writings on religion and science.

    • Torbjörn Larsson | March 20, 2022 at 7:29 am | Reply

      Your usual irrelevant superstition followed by pseudoscience references.

      It’s not good for anyone, least of all you.

  7. James Hamilton, M.D. | March 19, 2022 at 5:33 pm | Reply

    There is no conflict between science and religion– The concept of differential survival is inherent in the way that the Bible is written e.g. separation of the wheat from the chaff and burning of the wasteful chaff is a prevalent metaphor in Scripture. In this way, science and religion are mutually reinforcing. We have a lot to learn about both science and religion.

    James Hamilton, M.D.

    • Torbjörn Larsson | March 20, 2022 at 7:33 am | Reply

      Superstition, whether organized or else, has obviously nothing to do with science. And the myth texts you refer to has equally nothing of fact in them – how could they.

      The science is mildly interesting, but to test the above you said nothing on it. Your interest lay entirely in parading your ignorance of the topic of science.

  8. Kiumars Lalezarzadeh | March 19, 2022 at 7:28 pm | Reply

    Interesting that RNA is showering the planet earth from space? From whom is this source of RNA from space?

    It is further interesting that ever since the “origin of life” asserted; i.e., based on this creative science, no evolutionary change happens.

    In other words, the very process of “molecular replication” shown by this creative science (i.e., scientist as the creator) has remained invariant since the “beginning of life”.

    To be more clear, how come the process of “molecular replication” has remained unchanged. How come that remains as an invariant? How come that didn’t evolve or change?

    They may be onto something about creation of evolution!

    • RNA forms when specific organic conditions have been met. (see, for example, the Urey Miller experiments) This has been established science since roughly the 1960s. You should have probably spent more time in a classroom/lab.

  9. Richard Dawkins’ Replicator Theory coming to life! Pun intended. What a time to be alive.

  10. Mobarrad Hossain | March 20, 2022 at 1:50 am | Reply

    ….exactly…. I believe human life science is highly organics molecular formations ….and 350 crore body cells may get relief before completely molecular death and here we can ensure the 350 crores body cells optimization at a time with the help of organics AI ….all the best success wishes to SciTech daily…. From mobarradhossain

  11. Torbjörn Larsson | March 20, 2022 at 7:14 am | Reply

    They showed that developed replicator networks can evolve by something analogous to Darwinian evolution, so “supporting the plausibility of a long-envisioned evolutionary transition scenario” and interesting data on simple RNA cellular mechanisms.

    Since the discovery that alkaline hydrothermal vents can work as reactors replicating RNA and DNA strand populations, we don’t really need to know the exact pathway taken when evolution split biology from geology. These biochemistry toy models are less interesting for biogeoscience.

  12. For the comment on the “competitive exclusion principle,” I don’t find it nearly as surprising that multiple chemical “species” could survive competing for the same substrate materials. There’s already chemical process known in living organisms that “compete” for substrate in a similar way, and again it’s a biological principle, not an actual unbreakable law. This is obvious if you consider known mutualistic relationships like those between some badgers and coyotes or the relationship between groupers and moray eels. I would even consider humans with our plethora of types of gut bacteria as a contrary example to the principle. I will say however, that while I expected the outcome to be possible, I thought that it would be much more difficult to actually replicate in a lab. Other experiments have already created self-replicating ribozymes, but the advancement from that to seeing the parallel evolution between multiple interacting chemical species is an amazing step forward

  13. Frosted Flake | March 20, 2022 at 8:41 pm | Reply

    The “competitive exclusion principle,” seems to ‘prove’ deer and elk cannot share the forest.

    I am shocked that a scientist would subscribe to this obviouly false idea. An idea so bad it proves itself wrong.

  14. Doesn’t this experiment require pure right-handed ribose? … built into activated nucleotides? Didn’t it include the translation system from an E. coli? They call these “nutrients.” Isn’t it true that none of those were present on early Earth, as far as we can tell, until after life began? Where did the starting “Host RNA” come from? Wasn’t it manufactured by humans because they already know it works?

    In addition the lab environment is pure – no contaminants! How fortunate.

    Pure water droplets in pure oil? Where did the pure oil occur on early Earth, agitated just so that the the water droplets interact and stay suspended? “Who” added the nutrient supply at just the right time (more water droplets in oil with more translation systems and more activated nucleotides)?

    What a great example of what an intelligent designer can do with a well stocked lab, access to purified chemicals, precise environmental control, and a careful recipe!

    We already know RNA and DNA break, so mutations are certain over multiple cycles. The new data may be that the changed RNA also got replicated. Cool! But isn’t that what translation systems do?

    This strikes me as several tons of meaningless hype around a couple of ounces of an interesting, but not at all surprising, experiment. What is there here that could have actually happened on early Earth?

  15. … a mister Torbjörn Larsson on his rampage again,… is it against or what ever, still…

  16. Mark Corbett | March 28, 2022 at 7:04 am | Reply

    I feel this article and some similar articles discussing this experiment are misleading. I made a video explaining why. It may be viewed on YouTube here: https://youtu.be/ONaqq_97dBU

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