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Microbiol Mol Biol Rev. 2003 Dec;67(4):550-73.

On the evolution of structure in aminoacyl-tRNA synthetases.

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  • 1Department of Chemistry, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Urbana, Illinois 61801, USA.


The aminoacyl-tRNA synthetases are one of the major protein components in the translation machinery. These essential proteins are found in all forms of life and are responsible for charging their cognate tRNAs with the correct amino acid. The evolution of the tRNA synthetases is of fundamental importance with respect to the nature of the biological cell and the transition from an RNA world to the modern world dominated by protein-enzymes. We present a structure-based phylogeny of the aminoacyl-tRNA synthetases. By using structural alignments of all of the aminoacyl-tRNA synthetases of known structure in combination with a new measure of structural homology, we have reconstructed the evolutionary history of these proteins. In order to derive unbiased statistics from the structural alignments, we introduce a multidimensional QR factorization which produces a nonredundant set of structures. Since protein structure is more highly conserved than protein sequence, this study has allowed us to glimpse the evolution of protein structure that predates the root of the universal phylogenetic tree. The extensive sequence-based phylogenetic analysis of the tRNA synthetases (Woese et al., Microbiol. Mol. Biol. Rev. 64:202-236, 2000) has further enabled us to reconstruct the complete evolutionary profile of these proteins and to make connections between major evolutionary events and the resulting changes in protein shape. We also discuss the effect of functional specificity on protein shape over the complex evolutionary course of the tRNA synthetases.

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