Implications of Clay Mineral–RNA Interactions for the Origin of Life

Wednesday, 17 December 2014
James David Stephenson and Mark A Ditzler, NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA, United States
Due to its ability to both store information and catalyze reactions, RNA is considered by many to have been the dominant biopolymer at the origin of life. We are screening a large, random RNA population for catalytic activity in the presence and absence of prebiotically relevant clay minerals, to investigate the effect of RNA-clay mineral interactions on RNA function.

There is an extensive precedent for screening RNA populations for enzymatic functions such as ligation, cleavage and binding in the laboratory. While several environmental parameters have been explored, previous screens have not considered geological interactions. This is surprising as the role of clay minerals has featured prominently in many origin of life theories. Recent empirical evidence demonstrating that clay minerals can adsorb and protect RNA molecules as well as catalyze RNA polymerization has specifically reinvigorated the proposed importance of clay mineral-RNA interactions.

Although the identity of the first true biomolecules remains uncertain, interaction between emerging life and its geological environment appears inevitable. We therefore consider understanding the effect of geological-biological interactions to be of crucial importance when considering the earliest biopolymers at the origin of life. Our screens are from a random population of 10^14 unique random RNA sequences and are conducted with and without montmorillonite clay. We are screening for the ability of sequences to self cleave, one of the most basic enzymatic functions considered important to the earliest biopolymers. Our RNA function screens will therefore illuminate the effect of geological interactions at a crucial stage of early evolution.