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RNA folding argues against a hot-start origin of life

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  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Medicine


Opinion is strongly divided on whether life arose on earth under hot or cold conditions, the hot-start and cold-start scenarios, respectively. The origin of life close to deep thermal vents appears as the majority opinion among biologists, but there is considerable biochemical evidence that high temperatures are incompatible with an RNA world. To be functional, RNA has to fold into a three-dimensional structure. We report both theoretical and experimental results on RNA folding and show that (as expected) hot conditions strongly reduce RNA folding. The theoretical results come from energy-minimization calculations of the average extent of folding of RNA, mainly from 0–90°C, for both random sequences and tRNA sequences. The experimental results are from circular-dichroism measurements of tRNA over a similar range of temperatures. The quantitative agreement between calculations and experiment is remarkable, even to the shape of the curves indicating the cooperative nature of RNA folding and unfolding. These results provide additional evidence for a lower temperature stage being necessary in the origin of life.

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