RNA, a crucial biomolecule, has found various applications in environmental studies, including the monitoring of microbial communities, the development of pesticides, and the quantification of pathogenic viruses in water systems. However, understanding the degradation of RNA under different conditions is essential for its effective use in emerging technologies.
Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis, led by Assistant Professor Kimberly Parker, have made a significant discovery in this regard. They found that RNA can undergo rapid hydrolysis when it becomes adsorbed into iron oxide minerals. This abiotic pathway for RNA degradation sheds light on biogeochemical processes and environmental dynamics. The findings were published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.
The study highlights the first abiotic process that can compete with biotic degradation in causing RNA degradation in the environment. Instead of relying on biological agents, such as enzymes or microbes, to break down RNA, the researchers discovered that RNA degradation can occur relatively quickly through catalysis by minerals, irrespective of the biological context. This discovery has implications for the persistence of RNA in the environment.
The research, conducted by Ke Zhang under the supervision of Kimberly Parker, showed that RNA undergoes hydrolysis in a matter of hours when adsorbed to iron oxide minerals like goethite and hematite. The presence of iron in these minerals accelerates the structural breakdown of RNA. This finding challenges previous assumptions about the factors influencing RNA degradation, particularly in iron-rich soils and sediments, which make up approximately 10% of the world's ice-free land.
While this process can limit the persistence of RNA in the environment, there are conditions that can impede this degradation pathway. Further research is needed to gain deeper insights into the reaction mechanism and timescales of RNA degradation. Understanding these aspects is crucial for accurately interpreting DNA-to-RNA ratios, studying viruses and pesticides, and exploring the origins of life.