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EMBO J. 1998 Jan 2;17(1):297-305.

Genetic code in evolution: switching species-specific aminoacylation with a peptide transplant.

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Department of Biology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139, USA.


The genetic code is established in aminoacylation reactions whereby amino acids are joined to tRNAs bearing the anticodons of the genetic code. Paradoxically, while the code is universal there are many examples of species-specific aminoacylations, where a tRNA from one taxonomic domain cannot be acylated by a synthetase from another. Here we consider an example where a human, but not a bacterial, tRNA synthetase charges its cognate eukaryotic tRNA and where the bacterial, but not the human, enzyme charges the cognate bacterial tRNA. While the bacterial enzyme has less than 10% sequence identity with the human enzyme, transplantation of a 39 amino acid peptide from the human into the bacterial enzyme enabled the latter to charge its eukaryotic tRNA counterpart in vitro and in vivo. Conversely, substitution of the corresponding peptide of the bacterial enzyme for that of the human enabled the human enzyme to charge bacterial tRNA. This peptide element discriminates a base pair difference in the respective tRNA acceptor stems. Thus, functionally important co-adaptations of a synthetase to its tRNA act as small modular units that can be moved across taxonomic domains and thereby preserve the universality of the code.

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