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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2006 Nov 28;103(48):18095-100. Epub 2006 Nov 16.

Emergence of the universal genetic code imprinted in an RNA record.

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Department of Molecular Biophysics, Yale University, New Haven, CT 06520-8114, USA.


The molecular basis of the genetic code manifests itself in the interaction of the aminoacyl-tRNA synthetases and their cognate tRNAs. The fundamental biological question regarding these enzymes' role in the evolution of the genetic code remains open. Here we probe this question in a system in which the same tRNA species is aminoacylated by two unrelated synthetases. Should this tRNA possess major identity elements common to both enzymes, this would favor a scenario where the aminoacyl-tRNA synthetases evolved in the context of preestablished tRNA identity, i.e., after the universal genetic code emerged. An experimental system is provided by the recently discovered O-phosphoseryl-tRNA synthetase (SepRS), which acylates tRNA(Cys) with phosphoserine (Sep), and the well known cysteinyl-tRNA synthetase, which charges the same tRNA with cysteine. We determined the identity elements of Methanocaldococcus jannaschii tRNA(Cys) in the aminoacylation reaction for the two Methanococcus maripaludis synthetases SepRS (forming Sep-tRNA(Cys)) and cysteinyl-tRNA synthetase (forming Cys-tRNA(Cys)). The major elements, the discriminator base and the three anticodon bases, are shared by both tRNA synthetases. An evolutionary analysis of archaeal, bacterial, and eukaryotic tRNA(Cys) sequences predicted additional SepRS-specific minor identity elements (G37, A47, and A59) and suggested the dominance of vertical inheritance for tRNA(Cys) from a single common ancestor. Transplantation of the identified identity elements into the Escherichia coli tRNA(Gly) scaffold endowed facile phosphoserylation activity on the resulting chimera. Thus, tRNA(Cys) identity is an ancient RNA record that depicts the emergence of the universal genetic code before the evolution of the modern aminoacylation systems.

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