Structure-function study of telomerase RNA from evolutionary disparate species: remarkable divergence in gross architecture with the preservation of critical universal structural elements

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Telomerase enzyme is a truly remarkable enzyme specialized for the addition of short, highly repetitive DNA sequences onto linear eukaryotic chromosome ends. The telomerase enzyme functions as a ribonucleoprotein, minimally composed of the highly conserved catalytic telomerase reverse transcriptase

Telomerase enzyme is a truly remarkable enzyme specialized for the addition of short, highly repetitive DNA sequences onto linear eukaryotic chromosome ends. The telomerase enzyme functions as a ribonucleoprotein, minimally composed of the highly conserved catalytic telomerase reverse transcriptase and essential telomerase RNA component containing an internalized short template region within the vastly larger non-coding RNA. Even among closely related groups of species, telomerase RNA is astonishingly divergent in sequence, length, and secondary structure. This massive disparity is highly prohibitive for telomerase RNA identification from previously unexplored groups of species, which is fundamental for secondary structure determination. Combined biochemical enrichment and computational screening methods were employed for the discovery of numerous telomerase RNAs from the poorly characterized echinoderm lineage. This resulted in the revelation that--while closely related to the vertebrate lineage and grossly resembling vertebrate telomerase RNA--the echinoderm telomerase RNA central domain varies extensively in structure and sequence, diverging even within echinoderms amongst sea urchins and brittle stars. Furthermore, the origins of telomerase RNA within the eukaryotic lineage have remained a persistent mystery. The ancient Trypanosoma telomerase RNA was previously identified, however, a functionally verified secondary structure remained elusive. Synthetic Trypanosoma telomerase was generated for molecular dissection of Trypanosoma telomerase RNA revealing two RNA domains functionally equivalent to those found in known telomerase RNAs, yet structurally distinct. This work demonstrates that telomerase RNA is uncommonly divergent in gross architecture, while retaining critical universal elements.