Comparative Analysis of RNA Families Reveals Distinct Repertoires for Each Domain of Life
The RNA world hypothesis, that RNA genomes and catalysts preceded DNA genomes and genetically-encoded protein catalysts, has been central to models for the early evolution of life on Earth. A key part of such models is continuity between the earliest stages in the evolution of life and the RNA repertoires of extant lineages. Some assessments seem consistent with a diverse RNA world, yet direct continuity between modern RNAs and an RNA world has not been demonstrated for the majority of RNA families, and, anecdotally, many RNA functions appear restricted in their distribution. Despite much discussion of the possible antiquity of RNA families, no systematic analyses of RNA family distribution have been performed. To chart the broad evolutionary history of known RNA families, we performed comparative genomic analysis of over 3 million RNA annotations spanning 1446 families from the Rfam 10 database. We report that 99% of known RNA families are restricted to a single domain of life, revealing discrete repertoires for each domain. For the 1% of RNA families/clans present in more than one domain, over half show evidence of horizontal gene transfer (HGT), and the rest show a vertical trace, indicating the presence of a complex protein synthesis machinery in the Last Universal Common Ancestor (LUCA) and consistent with the evolutionary history of the most ancient protein-coding genes. However, with limited interdomain transfer and few RNA families exhibiting demonstrable antiquity as predicted under RNA world continuity, our results indicate that the majority of modern cellular RNA repertoires have primarily evolved in a domain-specific manner. In cells, DNA carries recipes for making proteins, and proteins perform chemical reactions, including replication of DNA. This interdependency raises questions for early evolution, since one molecule seemingly cannot exist without the other. A resolution to this problem is the RNA world, where RNA is postulated to have been both genetic material and primary catalyst. While artificially selected catalytic RNAs strengthen the chemical plausibility of an RNA world, a biological prediction is that some RNAs should date back to this period. In this study, we ask to what degree RNAs in extant organisms trace back to the common ancestor of cellular life. Using the Rfam RNA families database, we systematically screened genomes spanning the three domains of life (Archaea, Bacteria, Eukarya) for RNA genes, and examined how far back in evolution known RNA families can be traced. We find that 99% of RNA families are restricted to a single domain. Limited conservation within domains implies ongoing emergence of RNA functions during evolution. Of the remaining 1%, half show evidence of horizontal transfer (movement of genes between organisms), and half show an evolutionary history consistent with an RNA world. The oldest RNAs are primarily associated with protein synthesis and export.