A ribozyme (from ribonucleic acid enzyme, also called RNA enzyme or catalytic RNA) is an RNA molecule that catalyzes a chemical reaction. Many natural ribozymes catalyze either the hydrolysis of one of their own phosphodiester bonds, or the hydrolysis of bonds in other RNAs, but they have also been found to catalyze the aminotransferase activity of the ribosome.
Investigators studying the origin of life have produced ribozymes in the laboratory that are capable of catalyzing their own synthesis under very specific conditions, such as an RNA polymerase ribozyme. Mutagenesis and selection has been performed resulting in isolation of improved variants of the "Round-18" polymerase ribozyme from 2001. "B6.61" is able to add up to 20 nucleotides to a primer template in 24 hours, until it decomposes by hydrolysis of its phosphodiester bonds.
Some ribozymes may play an important role as therapeutic agents, as enzymes which tailor defined RNA sequences, as biosensors, and for applications in functional genomics and gene discovery.
most ribozymes are quite rare in the cell, their roles are sometimes essential to life. For example, the functional part of the ribosome, the molecular machine that translates RNA into proteins, is fundamentally a ribozyme. Ribozymes often have divalent metal ions such as Mg2+ as cofactors.
RNA can also act as a hereditary molecule, which encouraged Walter Gilbert to propose that in the past, the cell used RNA as both the genetic material and the structural and catalytic molecule, rather than dividing these functions between DNA and protein as they are today. This hypothesis became known as the "RNA world hypothesis" of the origin of life.
If ribozymes were the first molecular machines used by early life, then today's remaining ribozymes -- such as the ribosome machinery -- could be considered living fossils of a life based primarily on nucleic acids.
A recent test-tube study of prion folding suggests that an RNA may catalyze the pathological protein conformation in the manner of a chaperone enzyme