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J Theor Biol. 2007 Nov 21;249(2):331-42. Epub 2007 Aug 10.

A model for the emergence of the genetic code as a transition in a noisy information channel.

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Department of Physics of Complex Systems, Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot 76100, Israel.


The genetic code maps the 64 nucleotide triplets (codons) to 20 amino acids. Some argue that the specific form of the code with its 20 amino acids might be a 'frozen accident' because of the overwhelming effects of any further change. Others see it as a consequence of primordial biochemical pathways and their evolution. Here we examine a scenario in which evolution drives the emergence of a genetic code by selecting for an amino acid map that minimizes the impact of errors. We treat the stochastic mapping of codons to amino acids as a noisy information channel with a natural fitness measure. Organisms compete by the fitness of their codes and, as a result, a genetic code emerges at a supercritical transition in the noisy channel, when the mapping of codons to amino acids becomes non-random. At the phase transition, a small expansion is valid and the emergent code is governed by smooth modes of the Laplacian of errors. These modes are in turn governed by the topology of the error-graph, in which codons are connected if they are likely to be confused. This topology sets an upper bound-which is related to the classical map-coloring problem-on the number of possible amino acids. The suggested scenario is generic and may describe a mechanism for the formation of other error-prone biological codes, such as the recognition of DNA sites by proteins in the transcription regulatory network.

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