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Trends Genet. 1999 Jun;15(6):223-9.

The origin of the genetic code: amino acids as cofactors in an RNA world.

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Department of Plant Taxonomy and Ecology, Eötvös University, Budapest and Collegium Budapest, Szentháromság u. 2, H-1014 Budapest, Hungary.


The genetic code, understood as the specific assignment of amino acids to nucleotide triplets, might have preceded the existence of translation. Amino acids became utilized as cofactors by ribozymes in a metabolically complex RNA world. Specific charging ribozymes linked amino acids to corresponding RNA handles, which could basepair with different ribozymes, via an anticodon hairpin, and so deliver the cofactor to the ribozyme. Growing of the 'handle' into a presumptive tRNA was possible while function was retained and modified throughout. A stereochemical relation between some amino acids and cognate anticodons/codons is likely to have been important in the earliest assignments. Recent experimental findings, including selection for ribozymes catalyzing peptide-bond formation and those utilizing an amino acid cofactor, hold promise that scenarios of this major transition can be tested.

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