The Degeneracy of the Code

One amino acid is encoded by three consecutive nucleotides in mRNA, and each nucleotide can have one of four possible bases (A, G, C, and U) at each nucleotide position thus permitting 43 = 64 possible codons (see Figure 15.12). Three of these codons are stop codons, specifying the end of translation. Thus, 61 codons, called sense codons, code for amino acids. Because there are 61 sense codons and only 20 different amino acids commonly found in proteins, the code contains more information than is needed to specify the amino acids and is said to be a degenerate code. This expression does not mean that the genetic code is depraved; degenerate is a term that Francis Crick borrowed from quantum physics, where it describes multiple physical states that have equivalent meaning. The degeneracy of the genetic code means that amino acids may be specified by more than one codon. Only tryptophan and methionine are encoded by a single codon (see Figure 15.12). Others amino acids are specified by two codons, and some, such as leucine, are specified by six different codons. Codons that specify the same amino acid are said to be synonymous, just as synonymous words are different words that have the same meaning.

Isoaccepting tRNAs As we learned in Chapter 14, tRNAs serve as adapter molecules, binding particular amino acids and delivering them to a ribosome, where the amino acids are then assembled into polypeptide chains. Each type of tRNA attaches to a single type of amino acid. The cells of most organisms possess from about 30 to 50 different tRNAs, and yet there are only 20 different amino acids in proteins. Thus, some amino acids are carried by more than one tRNA. Different tRNAs that accept the same amino acid but have different anticodons are called isoac-cepting tRNAs. Some synonymous codons code for different isoacceptors.

Wobble Many synonymous codons differ only in the third position (see Figure 15.12). For example, alanine is encoded by the codons GCU, GCC, GCA, and GCG, all of which begin with GC. When the codon on the mRNA and the anticodon of the tRNA join (< Figure 15.13), the first (5') base of the codon pairs with the third base (3') of the anticodon, strictly according to Watson and Crick rules: A with U; C with G. Next, the middle bases of codon and anticodon pair, also strictly following the Watson and Crick rules. After these pairs have hydrogen bonded, the third bases pair weakly— there may be flexibility, or wobble, in their pairing.

In 1966, Francis Crick developed the wobble hypothesis, which proposed that some nonstandard pairings of bases could occur at the third position of a codon. For example, a G in the anticodon may pair with either a C or a U in the third position of the codon (Table 15.2). The important thing to remember about wobble is that it allows

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