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J Mol Biol. 2012 Sep 21;422(3):328-35. doi: 10.1016/j.jmb.2012.06.010. Epub 2012 Jun 12.

Silent substitutions predictably alter translation elongation rates and protein folding efficiencies.

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Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, The University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, TX 77550-0620, USA.


Genetic code redundancy allows most amino acids to be encoded by multiple codons that are non-randomly distributed along coding sequences. An accepted theory explaining the biological significance of such non-uniform codon selection is that codons are translated at different speeds. Thus, varying codon placement along a message may confer variable rates of polypeptide emergence from the ribosome, which may influence the capacity to fold toward the native state. Previous studies report conflicting results regarding whether certain codons correlate with particular structural or folding properties of the encoded protein. This is partly due to different criteria traditionally utilized for predicting translation speeds of codons, including their usage frequencies and the concentration of tRNA species capable of decoding them, which do not always correlate. Here, we developed a metric to predict organism-specific relative translation rates of codons based on the availability of tRNA decoding mechanisms: Watson-Crick, non-Watson-Crick or both types of interactions. We determine translation rates of messages by pulse-chase analyses in living Escherichia coli cells and show that sequence engineering based on these concepts predictably modulates translation rates in a manner that is superior to codon usage frequency, which occur during the elongation phase, and significantly impacts folding of the encoded polypeptide. Finally, we demonstrate that sequence harmonization based on expression host tRNA pools, designed to mimic ribosome movement of the original organism, can significantly increase the folding of the encoded polypeptide. These results illuminate how genetic code degeneracy may function to specify properties beyond amino acid encoding, including folding.

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