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.
Hoeppner, M. P., Gardner, P. P., & Poole, A. M. (2012). Comparative Analysis of RNA Families Reveals Distinct Repertoires for Each Domain of Life. PLoS Computational Biology, 8(11). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pcbi.1002752