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Astrobiology. 2011 Apr;11(3):235-40. doi: 10.1089/ast.2010.0567. Epub 2011 Mar 24.

Did evolution select a nonrandom "alphabet" of amino acids?

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  • 1NASA Astrobiology Institute, University of Hawaii, Honolulu, 96822, USA.

Abstract

The last universal common ancestor of contemporary biology (LUCA) used a precise set of 20 amino acids as a standard alphabet with which to build genetically encoded protein polymers. Considerable evidence indicates that some of these amino acids were present through nonbiological syntheses prior to the origin of life, while the rest evolved as inventions of early metabolism. However, the same evidence indicates that many alternatives were also available, which highlights the question: what factors led biological evolution on our planet to define its standard alphabet? One possibility is that natural selection favored a set of amino acids that exhibits clear, nonrandom properties-a set of especially useful building blocks. However, previous analysis that tested whether the standard alphabet comprises amino acids with unusually high variance in size, charge, and hydrophobicity (properties that govern what protein structures and functions can be constructed) failed to clearly distinguish evolution's choice from a sample of randomly chosen alternatives. Here, we demonstrate unambiguous support for a refined hypothesis: that an optimal set of amino acids would spread evenly across a broad range of values for each fundamental property. Specifically, we show that the standard set of 20 amino acids represents the possible spectra of size, charge, and hydrophobicity more broadly and more evenly than can be explained by chance alone.

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PMID:
21434765
[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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