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Ribozymes are RNA molecules that catalyze chemical reactions. Most biological processes do not happen spontaneously. For example, the cleavage of a molecule into two parts or the linkage of two molecules into one larger molecule requires catalysts , that is, helper molecules that make a reaction go faster. The majority of biological catalysts are proteins called enzymes. For many years scientists assumed that proteins alone had the structural complexity needed to serve as specific catalysts in cells, but around 1980 the research groups of Tom Cech and Sidney Altman independently discovered that some biological catalysts are made of RNA. These two scientists were honored with the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1989 for their discovery.

Structure and Function

The RNA catalysts called ribozymes are found in the nucleus, mitochondria, and chloroplasts of eukaryotic organisms. Some viruses, including several bacterial viruses, also have ribozymes. The ribozymes discovered to date can be grouped into different chemical types, but in all cases the RNA is associated with metal ions, such as magnesium (Mg2+) or potassium (K+), that play important roles during the catalysis. Almost all ribozymes are involved in processing RNA. They act either as molecular scissors to cleave precursor RNA chains (the chains that form the basis of a new RNA chain) or as "molecular staplers" that ligate two RNA molecules together. Although most ribozyme targets are RNA, there is now very strong evidence that the linkage of amino acids into proteins, which occurs at the ribosome during translation , is also catalyzed by RNA. Thus, the ribosomal RNA is itself also a ribozyme.

In some ribozyme-catalyzed reactions, the RNA cleavage and ligation processes are linked. In this case, an RNA chain is cleaved in two places and the middle piece (called the intron) is discarded, while the two flanking RNA pieces (called exons) are ligated together. This reaction is called splicing. Besides ribozyme-mediated splicing, which involves RNA alone, there are some splicing reactions that involve RNA-protein complexes. These complexes are called small nucleus ribonucleoprotein particles, abbreviated as snRNPs. This class of splicing is a very common feature of messenger RNA (mRNA) processing in "higher" eukaryotes such as humans. It is not yet known if snRNP-mediated splicing is catalyzed by the RNA components. Note also that some RNA splicing reactions are catalyzed by enzymes made of only protein.

Some precursor RNA molecules have a ribozyme built into their own intron, and this ribozyme is responsible for removal of the intron in which it is found. These are called self-splicing RNAs. After the splicing reaction is complete, the intron, including the ribozyme, is degraded. In these cases, each ribozyme works only once, unlike protein enzymes that catalyze a reaction repeatedly. Examples of self-spliced RNAs include the ribosomal RNAs of ciliated protozoa and certain mRNAs of yeast mitochondria.

Some RNA viruses, such as the hepatitis delta virus, also include a ribozyme as part of their inherited RNA molecule. During replication of the viral RNA, long strands containing repeats of the RNA genome (viral genetic information) are synthesized. The ribozyme then cleaves the long multimeric molecules into pieces that contain one genome copy, and fits that RNA piece into a virus particle.

Other ribozymes work on other RNA molecules. One ribozyme of this type is RNase P, which consists of one RNA chain and one or more proteins (depending on the organism). The catalytic mechanism of RNase P has been especially well-studied in bacteria. This ribozyme processes precursor transfer RNA (tRNA) by removing an extension from the 5-prime end, to create the 5-prime end of the "mature" tRNA (the two ends of an RNA molecule are chemically distinct and are called the 5-prime and 3-prime ends, referring to specific carbons in the sugar moiety of the terminal nucleotides). When the RNA molecule from bacterial RNase P is purified away from its protein, it can still cleave its precursor tRNA target, albeit at a very slow rate, proving that the RNA is the catalyst. Nevertheless, the protein(s) in RNase P also has important functions, such as maintenance of the proper conformation of the RNase P RNA and interaction with the precursor tRNA.

Relics of an "RNA World"

Many biologists hypothesize that ribozymes are vestiges of an ancient, prebiotic world that predated the evolution of proteins. In this "RNA world," RNAs were the catalysts of such functions as replication, cleavage, and ligation of RNA molecules. Proteins are hypothesized to have evolved later, and as they evolved they took over functions previously performed by RNA molecules. This may have happened because proteins are more versatile and efficient in their catalytic functions.

In today's world, most processing of precursor tRNA is performed by the ribozyme RNase P, as described above, but in some chloroplasts, this function is performed by a protein that apparently contains no RNA. This may be an example of the evolution of protein enzymes that replace ribozymes.

Intensive studies of ribozymes have provided rules for how they recognize their targets. Based on these rules, it has been possible to alter ribozymes to recognize and cleave new targets in RNA molecules that are normally not subject to ribozyme cleavage. These results raise the exciting possibility of using ribozymes for human therapy. For example, the abundance of disease-causing RNA molecules such as HIV, the cause of AIDS, could be reduced with artificial ribozymes. Considerable success has been achieved in testing these ribozymes in model cells. However, the biggest question remaining to be solved is how these potential "disease-fighting" ribozymes can be introduced into a patient and taken up by the appropriate cells.

see also Evolution, Molecular; Proteins; RNA; RNA Processing.

Lasse Lindahl


Cech, T. R. "RNA as an Enzyme." Scientific American 255 (1986): 64-75.

Karp, Gerald. Cell and Molecular Biology, 3rd ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2002.

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ribozyme (catalytic RNA) Any RNA molecule that can catalyse changes to its own molecular structure. Self-splicing introns are examples of ribozymes (see RNA processing). RNA in the large subunit of ribosomes is also thought to have ribozyme activity, in catalysing the formation of a peptide bond between the incoming amino acid and the end of the growing polypeptide chain – the peptidyltransferase reaction (see translation). Ribozymes have properties very similar to viroids, and it is speculated that the latter are in fact ‘escaped’ introns.

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