Date of Award

Spring 6-3-2016

Document Type

Honors Project

University Scholars Director

Dr. Jeffrey Keuss

First Reader

Dr. W. Grabow

Second Reader

Dr. S. Vokos


biological information, RNA, prebiotic information, RNA World Hypothesis


Information is an important pre-requisite for the onset of life, which means that any study of the origins of life must also address the origin of information. Biological information today is generally conceptualized in terms of the Central Dogma of Biology, with DNA as a digitized code within the cell. However, here I propose that biological information - particularly in prebiotic conditions, where information would have first arisen - is better understood in terms of the three-dimensional structure of a molecule. Evidence for information storage in RNA can be seen in a number of ways. One of these is that, instead of experiencing pressure to maintain a particular sequence of nucleotides, RNA experiences evolutionary pressure to maintain a particular three-dimensional structure through mechanisms such as covariation. Because the three-dimensional structure is less dependent on primary sequence, the likelihood of producing an informational molecule through random chance would increase in prebiotic conditions. Conceptualizing biological information in terms of a functional three-dimensional structure, rather than a linear code, provides a useful paradigm for understanding how biological information could have arisen. This way of understanding biological information also has implications for alternative models of the origin of information, including those proposed by the Intelligent Design community, which tend to focus primarily on DNA.


A project submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the University Scholars Program