Root of the Tree: The Significance, Evolution, and Origins of the Ribosome

Jessica C. Bowman, Anton S. Petrov, Moran Frenkel-Pinter, Petar I. Penev, Loren Dean Williams*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

91 Scopus citations


The ribosome is an ancient molecular fossil that provides a telescope to the origins of life. Made from RNA and protein, the ribosome translates mRNA to coded protein in all living systems. Universality, economy, centrality and antiquity are ingrained in translation. The translation machinery dominates the set of genes that are shared as orthologues across the tree of life. The lineage of the translation system defines the universal tree of life. The function of a ribosome is to build ribosomes; to accomplish this task, ribosomes make ribosomal proteins, polymerases, enzymes, and signaling proteins. Every coded protein ever produced by life on Earth has passed through the exit tunnel, which is the birth canal of biology. During the root phase of the tree of life, before the last common ancestor of life (LUCA), exit tunnel evolution is dominant and unremitting. Protein folding coevolved with evolution of the exit tunnel. The ribosome shows that protein folding initiated with intrinsic disorder, supported through a short, primitive exit tunnel. Folding progressed to thermodynamically stable β-structures and then to kinetically trapped α-structures. The latter were enabled by a long, mature exit tunnel that partially offset the general thermodynamic tendency of all polypeptides to form β-sheets. RNA chaperoned the evolution of protein folding from the very beginning. The universal common core of the ribosome, with a mass of nearly 2 million Daltons, was finalized by LUCA. The ribosome entered stasis after LUCA and remained in that state for billions of years. Bacterial ribosomes never left stasis. Archaeal ribosomes have remained near stasis, except for the superphylum Asgard, which has accreted rRNA post LUCA. Eukaryotic ribosomes in some lineages appear to be logarithmically accreting rRNA over the last billion years. Ribosomal expansion in Asgard and Eukarya has been incremental and iterative, without substantial remodeling of pre-existing basal structures. The ribosome preserves information on its history.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)4848-4878
Number of pages31
JournalChemical Reviews
Issue number11
StatePublished - 10 Jun 2020
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
Copyright © 2020 American Chemical Society.


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