Journal of Molecular Evolution

, Volume 77, Issue 4, pp 134–158 | Cite as

Evolution of the Genetic Code by Incorporation of Amino Acids that Improved or Changed Protein Function

  • Brian R. FrancisEmail author
Original Paper


Fifty years have passed since the genetic code was deciphered, but how the genetic code came into being has not been satisfactorily addressed. It is now widely accepted that the earliest genetic code did not encode all 20 amino acids found in the universal genetic code as some amino acids have complex biosynthetic pathways and likely were not available from the environment. Therefore, the genetic code evolved as pathways for synthesis of new amino acids became available. One hypothesis proposes that early in the evolution of the genetic code four amino acids—valine, alanine, aspartic acid, and glycine—were coded by GNC codons (N = any base) with the remaining codons being nonsense codons. The other sixteen amino acids were subsequently added to the genetic code by changing nonsense codons into sense codons for these amino acids. Improvement in protein function is presumed to be the driving force behind the evolution of the code, but how improved function was achieved by adding amino acids has not been examined. Based on an analysis of amino acid function in proteins, an evolutionary mechanism for expansion of the genetic code is described in which individual coded amino acids were replaced by new amino acids that used nonsense codons differing by one base change from the sense codons previously used. The improved or altered protein function afforded by the changes in amino acid function provided the selective advantage underlying the expansion of the genetic code. Analysis of amino acid properties and functions explains why amino acids are found in their respective positions in the genetic code.


Genetic code Evolution Protein function 



I wish to thank Professor Kensal van Holde for helpful comments on this paper.

Conflict of interest

The author declares that he has no conflict of interest.

Supplementary material

239_2013_9567_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (214 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (PDF 214 kb)


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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Molecular BiologyUniversity of WyomingLaramieUSA

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