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Gene. 2003 Oct 23;317(1-2):39-47.

Thermophilic prokaryotes have characteristic patterns of codon usage, amino acid composition and nucleotide content.

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  • 1Department of Biology, University of Ottawa, 30 Marie Curie, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1N 6N5.


A number of recent studies have shown that thermophilic prokaryotes have distinguishable patterns of both synonymous codon usage and amino acid composition, indicating the action of natural selection related to thermophily. On the other hand, several other studies of whole genomes have illustrated that nucleotide bias can have dramatic effects on synonymous codon usage and also on the amino acid composition of the encoded proteins. This raises the possibility that the thermophile-specific patterns observed at both the codon and protein levels are merely reflections of a single underlying effect at the level of nucleotide composition. Moreover, such an effect at the nucleotide level might be due entirely to mutational bias. In this study, we have compared the genomes of thermophiles and mesophiles at three levels: nucleotide content, codon usage and amino acid composition. Our results indicate that the genomes of thermophiles are distinguishable from mesophiles at all three levels and that the codon and amino acid frequency differences cannot be explained simply by the patterns of nucleotide composition. At the nucleotide level, we see a consistent tendency for the frequency of adenine to increase at all codon positions within the thermophiles. Thermophiles are also distinguished by their pattern of synonymous codon usage for several amino acids, particularly arginine and isoleucine. At the protein level, the most dramatic effect is a two-fold decrease in the frequency of glutamine residues among thermophiles. These results indicate that adaptation to growth at high temperature requires a coordinated set of evolutionary changes affecting (i) mRNA thermostability, (ii) stability of codon-anticodon interactions and (iii) increased thermostability of the protein products. We conclude that elevated growth temperature imposes selective constraints at all three molecular levels: nucleotide content, codon usage and amino acid composition. In addition to these multiple selective effects, however, the genomes of both thermophiles and mesophiles are often subject to superimposed large changes in composition due to mutational bias.

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