In Tom Stoppard's famous play [Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead], the ill-fated heroes toss a coin 101 times. The first 100 times they do so the coin lands heads up. The chance of this happening is approximately 1 in 10(30), a sequence of events so rare that one might argue that it could only happen in such a delightful fiction. Similarly rare events, however, may underlie the origins of biological catalysis. What is the probability that an RNA, DNA, or protein molecule of a given random sequence will display a particular catalytic activity? The answer to this question determines whether a collection of such sequences, such as might result from prebiotic chemistry on the early earth, is extremely likely or unlikely to contain catalytically active molecules, and hence whether the origin of life itself is a virtually inevitable consequence of chemical laws or merely a bizarre fluke. The fact that a priori estimates of this probability, given by otherwise informed chemists and biologists, ranged from 10(-5) to 10(-50), inspired us to begin to address the question experimentally. As it turns out, the chance that a given random sequence RNA molecule will be able to catalyze an RNA polymerase-like phosphoryl transfer reaction is close to 1 in 10(13), rare enough, to be sure, but nevertheless in a range that is comfortably accessible by experiment. It is the purpose of this Account to describe the recent advances in combinatorial biochemistry that have made it possible for us to explore the abundance and diversity of catalysts existing in nucleic acid sequence space.
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