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, Paulien Hogeweg, Eugene V. Koonin
PLOS Computational Biology, Volume 7; https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pcbi.1002024

Abstract:
The division of labor between template and catalyst is a fundamental property of all living systems: DNA stores genetic information whereas proteins function as catalysts. The RNA world hypothesis, however, posits that, at the earlier stages of evolution, RNA acted as both template and catalyst. Why would such division of labor evolve in the RNA world? We investigated the evolution of DNA-like molecules, i.e. molecules that can function only as template, in minimal computational models of RNA replicator systems. In the models, RNA can function as both template-directed polymerase and template, whereas DNA can function only as template. Two classes of models were explored. In the surface models, replicators are attached to surfaces with finite diffusion. In the compartment models, replicators are compartmentalized by vesicle-like boundaries. Both models displayed the evolution of DNA and the ensuing division of labor between templates and catalysts. In the surface model, DNA provides the advantage of greater resistance against parasitic templates. However, this advantage is at least partially offset by the disadvantage of slower multiplication due to the increased complexity of the replication cycle. In the compartment model, DNA can significantly delay the intra-compartment evolution of RNA towards catalytic deterioration. These results are explained in terms of the trade-off between template and catalyst that is inherent in RNA-only replication cycles: DNA releases RNA from this trade-off by making it unnecessary for RNA to serve as template and so rendering the system more resistant against evolving parasitism. Our analysis of these simple models suggests that the lack of catalytic activity in DNA by itself can generate a sufficient selective advantage for RNA replicator systems to produce DNA. Given the widespread notion that DNA evolved owing to its superior chemical properties as a template, this study offers a novel insight into the evolutionary origin of DNA. At the core of all biological systems lies the division of labor between the storage of genetic information and its phenotypic implementation, in other words, the functional differentiation between templates (DNA) and catalysts (proteins). This fundamental property of life is believed to have been absent at the earliest stages of evolution. The RNA world hypothesis, the most realistic current scenario for the origin of life, posits that, in primordial replicating systems, RNA functioned both as template and as catalyst. How would such division of labor emerge through Darwinian evolution? We investigated the evolution of DNA-like molecules in minimal computational models of RNA replicator systems. Two models were considered: one where molecules are adsorbed on surfaces and another one where molecules are compartmentalized by dividing cellular boundaries. Both models exhibit the evolution of DNA and the ensuing division of labor, revealing the simple governing principle of these processes: DNA releases RNA from the trade-off between template and catalyst that is inevitable in the RNA world and thereby enhances the system's resistance against parasitic templates. Hence, this study offers a novel insight into the evolutionary origin of the division of labor between templates and catalysts in the RNA world.
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