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Prog Biophys Mol Biol. 1999;72(2):157-243.

Evolution of the genetic code.

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Research Foundation of Southern California Inc., La Jolla 92037, USA.


Comparative path lengths in amino acid biosynthesis and other molecular indicators of the timing of codon assignment were examined to reconstruct the main stages of code evolution. The codon tree obtained was rooted in the 4 N-fixing amino acids (Asp, Glu, Asn, Gln) and 16 triplets of the NAN set. This small, locally phased (commaless) code evidently arose from ambiguous translation on a poly(A) collector strand, in a surface reaction network. Copolymerisation of these amino acids yields polyanionic peptide chains, which could anchor uncharged amide residues to a positively charged mineral surface. From RNA virus structure and replication in vitro, the first genes seemed to be RNA segments spliced into tRNA. Expansion of the code reduced the risk of mutation to an unreadable codon. This step was conditional on initiation at the 5'-codon of a translated sequence. Incorporation of increasingly hydrophobic amino acids accompanied expansion. As codons of the NUN set were assigned most slowly, they received the most nonpolar amino acids. The origin of ferredoxin and Gln synthetase was traced to mid-expansion phase. Surface metabolism ceased by the end of code expansion, as cells bounded by a proteo-phospholipid membrane, with a protoATPase, had emerged. Incorporation of positively charged and aromatic amino acids followed. They entered the post-expansion code by codon capture. Synthesis of efficient enzymes with acid-base catalysis was then possible. Both types of aminoacyl-tRNA synthetases were attributed to this stage. tRNA sequence diversity and error rates in RNA replication indicate the code evolved within 20 million yr in the preIsuan era. These findings on the genetic code provide empirical evidence, from a contemporaneous source, that a surface reaction network, centred on C-fixing autocatalytic cycles, rapidly led to cellular life on Earth.

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