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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

The ancient history of the structure of ribonuclease P and the early origins of Archaea

Feng-Jie Sun123 and Gustavo Caetano-Anollés1*

Author affiliations

1 Evolutionary Bioinformatics Laboratory, Department of Crop Sciences, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Urbana, Illinois 61801, USA

2 Laboratory of Molecular Epigenetics of the Ministry of Education, School of Life Sciences, Northeast Normal University, Changchun 130024, Jilin Province, PR China

3 W.M. Keck Center for Comparative and Functional Genomics, Roy J. Carver Biotechnology Center, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Urbana, Illinois 61801, USA

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Citation and License

BMC Bioinformatics 2010, 11:153  doi:10.1186/1471-2105-11-153

Published: 24 March 2010

Abstract

Background

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.

Results

To study the evolution of this complex, we constructed rooted phylogenetic trees of RPR molecules and substructures and estimated RPP age 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.

Conclusions

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.