Sequence folding is known to determine the spatial structure and catalytic function of proteins and nucleic acids. We show here that folding also plays a key role in enhancing the evolutionary stability of the intermolecular recognition necessary for the prevalent mode of catalytic action in replication, namely, in trans, one molecule catalyzing the replication of another copy, rather than itself. This points to a novel aspect of why molecular life is structured as it is, in the context of life as it could be: folding allows limited, structurally localized recognition to be strongly sensitive to global sequence changes, facilitating the evolution of cooperative interactions. RNA secondary structure folding, for example is shown to be able to stabilize the evolution of prolonged functional sequences, using only a part of this length extension for intermolecular recognition, beyond the limits of the (cooperative) error threshold. Such folding could facilitate the evolution of polymerases in spatially heterogeneous systems. This facilitation is, in fact, vital because physical limitations prevent complete sequence-dependent discrimination for any significant-size biopolymer substrate. The influence of partial sequence recognition between biopolymer catalysts and complex substrates is investigated within a stochastic, spatially resolved evolutionary model of trans catalysis. We use an analytically tractable nonlinear master equation formulation called PRESS (McCaskill et al., Biol. Chem. 382: 1343–1363), which makes use of an extrapolation of the spatial dynamics down from infinite dimensional space, and compare the results with Monte Carlo simulations.

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