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J Mol Evol. 2002 Mar;54(3):298-311.

Phenylalanine-binding RNAs and genetic code evolution.

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Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO 80309-0347, USA.


We isolated RNAs by selection-amplification, selecting for affinity to Phe-Sepharose and elution with free l-phenylalanine. Constant sequences did not contain Phe condons or anticodons, to avoid any possible confounding influence on initially randomized sequences. We examined the eight most frequent Phe-binding RNAs for inclusion of coding triplets. Binding sites were defined by nucleotide conservation, protection, and interference data. Together these RNAs comprise 70% of the 105 sequenced RNAs. The KD for the strongest sites is approximately 50 microM free amino acid, with strong stereoselectivity. One site strongly distinguishes free Phe from Trp and Tyr, a specificity not observed previously. In these eight Phe-binding RNAs, Phe codons are not significantly associated with Phe binding sites. However, among 21 characterized RNAs binding Phe, Tyr, Arg, and Ile, containing 1342 total nucleotides, codons are 2.7-fold more frequent within binding sites than in surrounding sequences in the same molecules. If triplets were not specifically related to binding sites, the probability of this distribution would be 4.8 x 10(-11). Therefore, triplet concentration within amino acid binding sites taken together is highly likely. In binding sites for Arg, Tyr, and Ile cognate codons are overrepresented. Thus Arg, Tyr, and Ile may be amino acids whose codons were assigned during an era of direct RNA-amino acid affinity. In contrast, Phe codons arguably were assigned by another criterion, perhaps during later code evolution.

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