A new paper by Feng-Jie Sun and Gustavo Caetano-Anollés was published today in BMC Bioinformatics (11: 153, 2010) that describes the ancient history of ribonuclease P. Ribonuclease P is an ancient endonuclease that cleaves precursor tRNA and generally consists of a catalytic RNA subunit (RPR) and one or more proteins (RPPs). It represents an important macromolecular complex and model system that is universally distributed in life. Its putative origins have inspired fundamental hypotheses, including the proposal of an ancient RNA world.
To study the evolution of this complex, rooted phylogenetic trees of RPR molecules and substructures were constructed and RPP age was estimated using a cladistic method that embeds structure directly into phylogenetic analysis. The general approach was used previously to study the evolution of tRNA, SINE RNA and 5S rRNA, the origins of metabolism, and the evolution and complexity of the protein world, and revealed here remarkable evolutionary patterns. Trees of molecules uncovered the tripartite nature of life and the early origin of archaeal RPRs. Trees of substructures showed molecules originated in stem P12 and were accessorized with a catalytic P1-P4 core structure before the first substructure was lost in Archaea. This core currently interacts with RPPs and ancient segments of the tRNA molecule. Finally, a census of protein domain structure in hundreds of genomes established RPPs appeared after the rise of metabolic enzymes at the onset of the protein world.
The study provides a detailed account of the history and early diversification of a fundamental ribonucleoprotein and offers further evidence in support of the existence of a tripartite organismal world that originated by the segregation of archaeal lineages from an ancient community of primordial organisms.