Understanding the origin and early evolution of proteins is important for unveiling how the RNA world developed into an RNA–protein world. Because the composition of organic molecules in the Earth’s primitive environment was plausibly not as diverse as today, the number of different amino acids used in early protein synthesis is likely to be substantially less than the current 20 proteinogenic residues. In this study, we have explored the thermal stability and RNA binding of ancestral variants of the ribosomal protein uS8 constructed from a reduced-alphabet of amino acids. First, we built a phylogenetic tree based on the amino acid sequences of uS8 from multiple extant organisms and used the tree to infer two plausible amino acid sequences corresponding to the last bacterial common ancestor of uS8. Both ancestral proteins were thermally stable and bound to an RNA fragment. By eliminating individual amino acid letters and monitoring thermal stability and RNA binding in the resulting proteins, we reduced the size of the amino acid set constituting one of the ancestral proteins, eventually finding that convergent sequences consisting of 15- or 14-amino acid alphabets still folded into stable structures that bound to the RNA fragment. Furthermore, a simplified variant reconstructed from a 13-amino-acid alphabet retained affinity for the RNA fragment, although it lost conformational stability. Collectively, RNA-binding activity may be achieved with a subset of the current 20 amino acids, raising the possibility of a simpler composition of RNA-binding proteins in the earliest stage of protein evolution.
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