Genetic code

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: General Biology

A series of codons in an short RNA molecule. Each codon consists of three nucleotides, representing a single amino acid.
A series of codons in an short RNA molecule. Each codon consists of three nucleotides, representing a single amino acid.

The genetic code is the set of rules by which information encoded in genetic material (DNA or RNA sequences) is translated into proteins ( amino acid sequences) by living cells. Specifically, the code defines a mapping between tri- nucleotide sequences called codons and amino acids; every triplet of nucleotides in a nucleic acid sequence specifies a single amino acid. Most organisms use a nearly universal code that is referred to as the standard genetic code. Even viruses, which are not cellular and do not synthesize proteins themselves, have proteins made using this standard code. For a time, therefore, the code was thought to be universal. However, there are notable exceptions. It is also possible for a single organism to translate different parts of the genome in different ways. For example, in humans, protein synthesis in mitochondria relies on a modified genetic code that varies from the standard one.

Cracking the genetic code

After the structure of DNA was deciphered by James Watson, Francis Crick and Rosalind Franklin, serious efforts to understand the nature of the encoding of proteins began. George Gamov postulated that a three-letter code must be employed to encode the 20 different amino acids used by living cells to encode proteins. The first elucidation of a codon was done by Marshall Nirenberg and Heinrich J. Matthaei in 1961 at the National Institutes of Health. They used a cell-free system to translate a poly-uracil RNA sequence (or UUUUU... in biochemical terms) and discovered that the polypeptide they had synthesized consisted of only the amino acid phenylalanine. They, thereby deduced from this poly-phenylalanine that the codon UUU specified the amino-acid phenylalanine. Extending this work, Nirenberg and his coworkers were able to determine the nucleotide makeup of each codon. In order to determine the order of the sequence, trinucleotides were bound to ribosomes and radioactivaly labeled aminoacyl-tRNA was used to determine, which amino acid corresponded to the codon. Nirenberg's group was able to determine the the sequences of 54 out of 64 codons. Subsequent work by Har Gobind Khorana identified the rest of the code, and shortly thereafter Robert W. Holley determined the structure transfer RNA, the adapter molecule that facilitates translation. In 1968, Khorana, Holley and Nirenberg shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work.

Transfer of information via the genetic code

The genetic information carried by an organism, its genome, is inscribed in one or more DNA, or in some cases RNA, molecules. Each functional portion of a DNA or RNA molecule is referred to as a gene. The gene sequence inscribed in DNA, and in RNA, is composed of tri-nucleotide units called codons, each coding for a single amino acid. Each nucleotide sub-unit consists of a phosphate, deoxyribose sugar and one of the 4 nitrogenous nucleotide bases grouped into 2 categories, purine and pyrimidine. The purine bases adenine (A) and guanine (G) are larger and consist of two aromatic rings. The pyrimidine bases cytosine (C) and thymine (T) are smaller and consist of only one aromatic ring. The percentages of adenine and thymine in the molecule are always the same, as well as percentages of cytosine and guanine. This is due to the fact that hydogen bonds can only form between these nucleotides- this is known as base pairing. In RNA, however, thymine (T) is substituted by uracil (U), and the deoxyribose is substituted by ribose.

Each protein-coding gene is transcribed into a short template molecule of the related polymer RNA, known as messenger RNA or mRNA. This in turn is translated on the ribosome into an amino acid chain or polypeptide, which will then fold, resulting in secondary and tertiary structures. The process of translation requires transfer RNAs specific for individual amino acids with the amino acids covalently attached to them, guanosine triphosphate as an energy source, and a number of translation factors. tRNAs have anticodons complementary to the codons in mRNA and can be "charged" covalently with amino acids at their 3' terminal CCA ends. Individual tRNAs are charged with specific amino acids by enzymes known as aminoacyl tRNA synthetases which have high specificity for both their cognate amino acids and tRNAs. The high specificity of these enzymes is a major reasons why the fidelity of protein translation is maintained.

Theoretically, there are 4³ = 64 different codon combinations possible with a triplet codon of three nucleotides. In reality, all 64 codons of the standard genetic code are assigned for either amino acids or stop signals during translation. If, for example, an RNA sequence, UUUAAACCC is considered and the reading-frame starts with the first U (by convention, 5' to 3'), there are three codons, namely, UUU, AAA and CCC, each of which specifies one amino acid. This RNA sequence will be translated into an amino acid sequence, three amino acids long.

The standard genetic code is shown in the following tables. Table 1 shows what amino acid each of the 64 codons specifies. Table 2 shows what codons specify each of the 20 standard amino acids involved in translation. These are called forward and reverse codon tables, respectively. For example, the codon AAU represents the amino acid asparagine, and UGU and UGC represent cysteine {standard three-letter designations, Asn and Cys respectively).

Table 1: RNA codon table

This table shows the 64 codons and the amino acid each codon codes for. The direction is 5' to 3'.
2nd base

UUU (Phe/F) Phenylalanine
UUC (Phe/F)Phenylalanine
UUA (Leu/L) Leucine
UUG (Leu/L)Leucine

UCU (Ser/S) Serine
UCC (Ser/S)Serine
UCA (Ser/S)Serine
UCG (Ser/S)Serine

UAU (Tyr/Y) Tyrosine
UAC (Tyr/Y)Tyrosine
UAA Ochre (Stop)
UAG Amber (Stop)

UGU (Cys/C) Cysteine
UGC (Cys/C)Cysteine
UGA Opal (Stop)
UGG (Trp/W) Tryptophan


CUU (Leu/L)Leucine
CUC (Leu/L)Leucine
CUA (Leu/L)Leucine
CUG (Leu/L)Leucine

CCU (Pro/P) Proline
CCC (Pro/P)Proline
CCA (Pro/P)Proline
CCG (Pro/P)Proline

CAU (His/H) Histidine
CAC (His/H)Histidine
CAA (Gln/Q) Glutamine
CAG (Gln/Q)Glutamine

CGU (Arg/R) Arginine
CGC (Arg/R)Arginine
CGA (Arg/R)Arginine
CGG (Arg/R)Arginine


AUU (Ile/I) Isoleucine
AUC (Ile/I)Isoleucine
AUA (Ile/I)Isoleucine
AUG (Met/M) Methionine, Start

ACU (Thr/T) Threonine
ACC (Thr/T)Threonine
ACA (Thr/T)Threonine
ACG (Thr/T)Threonine

AAU (Asn/N) Asparagine
AAC (Asn/N)Asparagine
AAA (Lys/K) Lysine
AAG (Lys/K)Lysine

AGU (Ser/S) Serine
AGC (Ser/S)Serine
AGA (Arg/R) Arginine
AGG (Arg/R)Arginine


GUU (Val/V) Valine
GUC (Val/V)Valine
GUA (Val/V)Valine
GUG (Val/V)Valine

GCU (Ala/A) Alanine
GCC (Ala/A)Alanine
GCA (Ala/A)Alanine
GCG (Ala/A)Alanine

GAU (Asp/D) Aspartic acid
GAC (Asp/D)Aspartic acid
GAA (Glu/E) Glutamic acid
GAG (Glu/E)Glutamic acid

GGU (Gly/G) Glycine
GGC (Gly/G)Glycine
GGA (Gly/G)Glycine
GGG (Gly/G)Glycine

Table 2: Reverse codon table

This table shows the 20 standard amino acids used in proteins, and the codons that code for each amino acid.

Start AUG Stop UAG, UGA, UAA

Salient features

Reading frame of a sequence

Note that a codon is defined by the inital nucleotide from which translation starts. For example, the string GGGAAACCC, if read from the first position, contains the codons GGG, AAA and CCC;and if read from the second position, it contains the codons GGA and AAC; if read starting from the third position, GAA and ACC. Partial codons have been ignored in this example. Every sequence can thus be read in three reading frames, each of which will produce a different amino acid sequence (in the given example, Gly-Lys-Pro, Gly-Asp, or Glu-Thr, respectively). With double-stranded DNA there are six possible reading frames, three in the forward orientation on one strand and three reverse, or on the opposite strand.

The actual frame a protein sequence is translated in is defined by a start codon, usually the first AUG codon in the mRNA sequence. Mutations that disrupt the reading frame by insertions or deletions of one or two nucleotide bases are known as frameshift mutations. These mutations may impair the function of the resulting protein, if it is formed, and are thus rare in in vivo protein-coding sequences. Often such misformed proteins are targeted for proteolytic degradation. One reason for the rareness of frame-shifted mutations being inherited is that if the protein being translated is essential for growth under the selective pressures the organism faces, absence of a functional protein may cause lethality before the organism is viable.

Start/stop codons

Translation starts with a chain initiation codon ( start codon). Unlike stop codons, the codon alone is not sufficient to begin the process. Nearby sequences and initiation factors are also required to start translation. The most common start codon is AUG, which also codes for methionine, but other start codons are also used.

The three stop codons have been given names: UAG is amber, UGA is opal (sometimes also called umber), and UAA is ochre. "Amber" was named after its discoverer Harris Bernstein, whose last name means "amber" in German. The other two stop codons were named 'ochre" and "opal" in order to keep the "colour names" theme. Stop codons are also called termination codons and they signal release of the nascent polypeptide from the ribosome due to binding of release factors in the absence of cognate tRNAs with anticodons complementary to these stop signals.

Degeneracy of the genetic code

Many codons are redundant, meaning that two or more codons can code for the same amino acid. Degenerate codons may differ in their third positions; e.g., both GAA and GAG code for the amino acid glutamic acid. A codon is said to be four-fold degenerate if any nucleotide at its third position specifies the same amino acid; it is said to be two-fold degenerate if only two of four possible nucleotides at its third position specify the same amino acid. In two-fold degenerate codons, the equivalent third position nucleotides are always either two purines (A/G) or two pyrimidines (C/T). Only two amino acids are specified by a single codon; one of these is the amino-acid methionine, specified by the codon AUG, which also specifies the start of translation; the other is tryptophan, specified by the codon UGG. The degeneracy of the genetic code is what accounts for the existence of silent mutations.

Degeneracy results because a triplet code designates 20 amino acids and a stop codon. Because there are four bases, triplet codons are required to produce at least 21 different codes. For example, if there were two bases per codon, then only 16 amino acids could be coded for (4²=16). Because at least 21 codes are required, then 4³ gives 64 possible codons, meaning that some degeneracy must exist.

These properties of the genetic code make it more fault-tolerant for point mutations. For example, in theory, four-fold degenerate codons can tolerate any point mutation at the third position, although codon usage bias restricts this in practice in many organisms; two-fold degenerate codons can tolerate one out of the three possible point mutations at the third position. Since transition mutations (purine to purine or pyrimidine to pyrimidine mutations) are more likely than transversion (purine to pyrimidine or vice-versa) mutations, the equivalence of purines or that of pyrimidines at two-fold degenerate sites adds a further fault-tolerance.

A practical consequence of redundancy is that some errors in the genetic code only cause a silent mutation or an error that would not affect the protein because the hydrophilicity or hydrophobicity is maintained by equivalent substitution of amino acids; for example, a codon of NUN (where N = any nucleotide) tends to code for hydrophobic amino acids. Even so, it is a single point mutation that causes a modified hemoglobin molecule in sickle-cell disease. The hydrophilic glutamate (Glu) is substituted by the hydrophobic valine (Val), which reduces the solubility of ß-globin. In this case, this mutation causes hemoglobin to form linear polymers linked by the hydrophobic interaction between the valine groups causing sickle-cell deformation of erythrocytes. Sickle-cell disease is generally not caused by a de novo mutation. Rather it is selected for in malarial regions (in a similar way to thalassemia), as heterozygous people have some resistance to the malarial Plasmodium parasite ( heterozygote advantage).

These variable codes for amino acids are allowed because of modified bases in the first base of the anticodon of the tRNA, and the base-pair formed is called a wobble base pair. The modified bases include inosine and the Non-Watson-Crick U-G basepair.


Numerous variations of the standard genetic code are found in mitochondria, which are energy-producing organelles that are found inside eukaryotic cells. Mycoplasma translate the codon UGA as tryptophan. Ciliate protozoa also have some variation in the genetic code: UAG and often UAA code for glutamine (a variant also found in some green algae), or UGA codes for cysteine. Another variant is found in some species of the yeast, Candida, where CUG codes for serine. In addition in some rare cases certain proteins may also use alternate initiation (start) codons.

In certain proteins, non-standard amino acids are substituted for standard stop codons, depending upon associated signal sequences in the messenger RNA: UGA can code for selenocysteine and UAG can code for pyrrolysine as discussed in the relevant articles. A detailed description of variations in the genetic code can be found at the NCBI web site. However, there may be other non-standard interpretations that are not yet known. Sequencing of genomes may reveal unique genetic codes that allow the incorporation of other novel amino acids into proteins.

Origin of the genetic code

Despite the variations that exist, the genetic codes used by all known forms of life on Earth are very similar. Since there are many possible genetic codes that are thought to have similar utility to the one used by Earth life, the theory of evolution suggests that the genetic code was established very early in the history of life.

One can ask the question: is the genetic code completely random, just one set of codon-amino acid correspondences that happened to establish itself and be "frozen in" early in evolution, although functionally any of the many other possible transcription tables would have done just as well? Already a cursory look at the table shows patterns that suggest that this is not the case.

There are three themes running through the many theories that seek to explain the evolution of the genetic code (and hence the origin of these patterns). One is illustrated by recent aptamer experiments which show that some amino acids have a selective chemical affinity for the base triplets that code for them. This suggests that the current, complex transcription mechanism involving tRNA and associated enzymes may be a later development, and that originally, protein sequences were directly templated on base sequences. Another is that the standard genetic code that we see today grew from a simpler, earlier code through a process of "biosynthetic expansion". Here the idea is that primordial life 'invented' new amino acids (e.g. as by-products of metabolism) and later back-incorporated some of these into the machinery of genetic coding. Although much circumstantial evidence has been found to indicate that originally the number of different amino acids used may have been considerably smaller than today, precise and detailed hypotheses about exactly which amino acids entered the code in exactly what order has proved far more controversial. A third is that natural selection organized the codon assignments of the genetic code to minimize the effects of genetic errors ( mutations).

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