Parsimonious scenario for the emergence of viroid-like replicons de novo

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Viroids are small, non-coding, circular RNA molecules that infect plants. Different hypotheses for their evolutionary origin have been put forward, such as an early emergence in a precellular RNA World or several de novo independent evolutionary origins in plants. Here, we discuss the plausibility of de novo emergence of viroid-like replicons by giving theoretical support to the likelihood of different steps along a parsimonious evolutionary pathway. While Avsunviroidae-like structures are relatively easy to obtain through evolution of a population of random RNA sequences of fixed length, rod-like structures typical of Pospiviroidae are difficult to fix. Using different quantitative approaches, we evaluated the likelihood that RNA sequences fold into a rod-like structure and bear specific sequence motifs facilitating interactions with other molecules, e.g., RNA polymerases, RNases, and ligases. By means of numerical simulations, we show that circular RNA replicons analogous to Pospiviroidae emerge if evolution is seeded with minimal circular RNAs that grow through the gradual addition of nucleotides. Further, these rod-like replicons often maintain their structure if independent functional modules are acquired that impose selective constraints. The evolutionary scenario we propose here is consistent with the structural and biochemical properties of viroids described to date.
This article belongs to the Special Issue Viroid-2018: International Conference on Viroids and Viroid-Like RNAs.
Computational simulations, Modular evolution, Population dynamics, RNA secondary structure, Simple replicators, Structure enumeration, Viroid
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Catalán, P., Elena, S. F., Cuesta, J. A. & Manrubia, S. (2019). Parsimonious Scenario for the Emergence of Viroid-Like Replicons De Novo. Viruses, 11(5), 425.