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1.  Analysis of Proline Reduction in the Nosocomial Pathogen Clostridium difficile▿  
Journal of Bacteriology  2006;188(24):8487-8495.
Clostridium difficile, a proteolytic strict anaerobe, has emerged as a clinically significant nosocomial pathogen in recent years. Pathogenesis is due to the production of lethal toxins, A and B, members of the large clostridial cytotoxin family. Although it has been established that alterations in the amino acid content of the growth medium affect toxin production, the molecular mechanism for this observed effect is not yet known. Since there is a paucity of information on the amino acid fermentation pathways used by this pathogen, we investigated whether Stickland reactions might be at the heart of its bioenergetic pathways. Growth of C. difficile on Stickland pairs yielded large increases in cell density in a limiting basal medium, demonstrating that these reactions are tied to ATP production. Selenium supplementation was required for this increase in cell yield. Analysis of genome sequence data reveals genes encoding the protein components of two key selenoenzyme reductases, glycine reductase and d-proline reductase (PR). These selenoenzymes were expressed upon the addition of the corresponding Stickland acceptor (glycine, proline, or hydroxyproline). Purification of the selenoenzyme d-proline reductase revealed a mixed complex of PrdA and PrdB (SeCys-containing) proteins. PR utilized only d-proline but not l-hydroxyproline, even in the presence of an expressed and purified proline racemase. PR was found to be independent of divalent cations, and zinc was a potent inhibitor of PR. These results show that Stickland reactions are key to the growth of C. difficile and that the mechanism of PR may differ significantly from that of previously studied PR from nonpathogenic species.
PMCID: PMC1698225  PMID: 17041035
2.  Fermentation of peptides and amino acids by a monensin-sensitive ruminal Peptostreptococcus. 
Applied and Environmental Microbiology  1988;54(11):2742-2749.
A monensin-sensitive ruminal peptostreptococcus was able to grow rapidly (growth rate of 0.5/h) on an enzymatic hydrolysate of casein, but less than 23% of the amino acid nitrogen was ever utilized. When an acid hydrolysate was substituted for the enzymatic digest, more than 31% of the nitrogen was converted to ammonia and cell protein. Coculture experiments and synergisms with peptide-degrading strains of Bacteroides ruminicola and Streptococcus bovis indicated that the peptostreptococcus was unable to transport certain peptides or hydrolyze them extracellularly. Leucine, serine, phenylalanine, threonine, and glutamine were deaminated at rates of 349, 258, 102, 95, and 91 nmol/mg of protein per min, respectively. Deamination rates for some other amino acids were increased when the amino acids were provided as pairs of oxidized and reduced amino acids (Stickland reactions), but these rates were still less than 80 nmol/mg of protein per min. In continuous culture (dilution rate of 0.1/h), bacterial dry matter and ammonia production decreased dramatically at a pH of less than 6.0. When dilution rates were increased from 0.08 to 0.32/h (pH 7.0), ammonia production increased while production of bacterial dry matter and protein decreased. These rather peculiar kinetics resulted in a slightly negative estimate of maintenance energy and could not be explained by a change in fermentation products. Approximately 80% of the cell dry matter was protein. When corrections were made for cell composition, the yield of ATP was higher than the theoretical maximum value. It is possible that mechanisms other than substrate-level phosphorylation contributed to the energetics of growth.
PMCID: PMC204366  PMID: 2975156
3.  Proline-Dependent Regulation of Clostridium difficile Stickland Metabolism 
Journal of Bacteriology  2013;195(4):844-854.
Clostridium difficile, a proteolytic Gram-positive anaerobe, has emerged as a significant nosocomial pathogen. Stickland fermentation reactions are thought to be important for growth of C. difficile and appear to influence toxin production. In Stickland reactions, pairs of amino acids donate and accept electrons, generating ATP and reducing power in the process. Reduction of the electron acceptors proline and glycine requires the d-proline reductase (PR) and the glycine reductase (GR) enzyme complexes, respectively. Addition of proline in the medium increases the level of PR protein but decreases the level of GR. We report the identification of PrdR, a protein that activates transcription of the PR-encoding genes in the presence of proline and negatively regulates the GR-encoding genes. The results suggest that PrdR is a central metabolism regulator that controls preferential utilization of proline and glycine to produce energy via the Stickland reactions.
PMCID: PMC3562115  PMID: 23222730
4.  On the origin of the translation system and the genetic code in the RNA world by means of natural selection, exaptation, and subfunctionalization 
Biology Direct  2007;2:14.
The origin of the translation system is, arguably, the central and the hardest problem in the study of the origin of life, and one of the hardest in all evolutionary biology. The problem has a clear catch-22 aspect: high translation fidelity hardly can be achieved without a complex, highly evolved set of RNAs and proteins but an elaborate protein machinery could not evolve without an accurate translation system. The origin of the genetic code and whether it evolved on the basis of a stereochemical correspondence between amino acids and their cognate codons (or anticodons), through selectional optimization of the code vocabulary, as a "frozen accident" or via a combination of all these routes is another wide open problem despite extensive theoretical and experimental studies. Here we combine the results of comparative genomics of translation system components, data on interaction of amino acids with their cognate codons and anticodons, and data on catalytic activities of ribozymes to develop conceptual models for the origins of the translation system and the genetic code.
Our main guide in constructing the models is the Darwinian Continuity Principle whereby a scenario for the evolution of a complex system must consist of plausible elementary steps, each conferring a distinct advantage on the evolving ensemble of genetic elements. Evolution of the translation system is envisaged to occur in a compartmentalized ensemble of replicating, co-selected RNA segments, i.e., in a RNA World containing ribozymes with versatile activities. Since evolution has no foresight, the translation system could not evolve in the RNA World as the result of selection for protein synthesis and must have been a by-product of evolution drive by selection for another function, i.e., the translation system evolved via the exaptation route. It is proposed that the evolutionary process that eventually led to the emergence of translation started with the selection for ribozymes binding abiogenic amino acids that stimulated ribozyme-catalyzed reactions. The proposed scenario for the evolution of translation consists of the following steps: binding of amino acids to a ribozyme resulting in an enhancement of its catalytic activity; evolution of the amino-acid-stimulated ribozyme into a peptide ligase (predecessor of the large ribosomal subunit) yielding, initially, a unique peptide activating the original ribozyme and, possibly, other ribozymes in the ensemble; evolution of self-charging proto-tRNAs that were selected, initially, for accumulation of amino acids, and subsequently, for delivery of amino acids to the peptide ligase; joining of the peptide ligase with a distinct RNA molecule (predecessor of the small ribosomal subunit) carrying a built-in template for more efficient, complementary binding of charged proto-tRNAs; evolution of the ability of the peptide ligase to assemble peptides using exogenous RNAs as template for complementary binding of charged proteo-tRNAs, yielding peptides with the potential to activate different ribozymes; evolution of the translocation function of the protoribosome leading to the production of increasingly longer peptides (the first proteins), i.e., the origin of translation. The specifics of the recognition of amino acids by proto-tRNAs and the origin of the genetic code depend on whether or not there is a physical affinity between amino acids and their cognate codons or anticodons, a problem that remains unresolved.
We describe a stepwise model for the origin of the translation system in the ancient RNA world such that each step confers a distinct advantage onto an ensemble of co-evolving genetic elements. Under this scenario, the primary cause for the emergence of translation was the ability of amino acids and peptides to stimulate reactions catalyzed by ribozymes. Thus, the translation system might have evolved as the result of selection for ribozymes capable of, initially, efficient amino acid binding, and subsequently, synthesis of increasingly versatile peptides. Several aspects of this scenario are amenable to experimental testing.
This article was reviewed by Rob Knight, Doron Lancet, Alexander Mankin (nominated by Arcady Mushegian), and Arcady Mushegian.
PMCID: PMC1894784  PMID: 17540026
5.  The scenario on the origin of translation in the RNA world: in principle of replication parsimony 
Biology Direct  2010;5:65.
It is now believed that in the origin of life, proteins should have been "invented" in an RNA world. However, due to the complexity of a possible RNA-based proto-translation system, this evolving process seems quite complicated and the associated scenario remains very blurry. Considering that RNA can bind amino acids with specificity, it has been reasonably supposed that initial peptides might have been synthesized on "RNA templates" containing multiple amino acid binding sites. This "Direct RNA Template (DRT)" mechanism is attractive because it should be the simplest mechanism for RNA to synthesize peptides, thus very likely to have been adopted initially in the RNA world. Then, how this mechanism could develop into a proto-translation system mechanism is an interesting problem.
Presentation of the hypothesis
Here an explanation to this problem is shown considering the principle of "replication parsimony" --- genetic information tends to be utilized in a parsimonious way under selection pressure, due to its replication cost (e.g., in the RNA world, nucleotides and ribozymes for RNA replication). Because a DRT would be quite long even for a short peptide, its replication cost would be great. Thus the diversity and the length of functional peptides synthesized by the DRT mechanism would be seriously limited. Adaptors (proto-tRNAs) would arise to allow a DRT's complementary strand (called "C-DRT" here) to direct the synthesis of the same peptide synthesized by the DRT itself. Because the C-DRT is a necessary part in the DRT's replication, fewer turns of the DRT's replication would be needed to synthesize definite copies of the functional peptide, thus saving the replication cost. Acting through adaptors, C-DRTs could transform into much shorter templates (called "proto-mRNAs" here) and substitute the role of DRTs, thus significantly saving the replication cost. A proto-rRNA corresponding to the small subunit rRNA would then emerge to aid the binding of proto-tRNAs and proto-mRNAs, allowing the reduction of base pairs between them (ultimately resulting in the triplet anticodon/codon pair), thus further saving the replication cost. In this context, the replication cost saved would allow the appearance of more and longer functional peptides and, finally, proteins. The hypothesis could be called "DRT-RP" ("RP" for "replication parsimony").
Testing the hypothesis
The scenario described here is open for experimental work at some key scenes, including the compact DRT mechanism, the development of adaptors from aa-aptamers, the synthesis of peptides by proto-tRNAs and proto-mRNAs without the participation of proto-rRNAs, etc. Interestingly, a recent computer simulation study has demonstrated the plausibility of one of the evolving processes driven by replication parsimony in the scenario.
Implication of the hypothesis
An RNA-based proto-translation system could arise gradually from the DRT mechanism according to the principle of "replication parsimony" --- to save the replication cost of RNA templates for functional peptides. A surprising side deduction along the logic of the hypothesis is that complex, biosynthetic amino acids might have entered the genetic code earlier than simple, prebiotic amino acids, which is opposite to the common sense. Overall, the present discussion clarifies the blurry scenario concerning the origin of translation with a major clue, which shows vividly how life could "manage" to exploit potential chemical resources in nature, eventually in an efficient way over evolution.
This article was reviewed by Eugene V. Koonin, Juergen Brosius, and Arcady Mushegian.
PMCID: PMC3002371  PMID: 21110883
6.  On origin of genetic code and tRNA before translation 
Biology Direct  2011;6:14.
Synthesis of proteins is based on the genetic code - a nearly universal assignment of codons to amino acids (aas). A major challenge to the understanding of the origins of this assignment is the archetypal "key-lock vs. frozen accident" dilemma. Here we re-examine this dilemma in light of 1) the fundamental veto on "foresight evolution", 2) modular structures of tRNAs and aminoacyl-tRNA synthetases, and 3) the updated library of aa-binding sites in RNA aptamers successfully selected in vitro for eight amino acids.
The aa-binding sites of arginine, isoleucine and tyrosine contain both their cognate triplets, anticodons and codons. We have noticed that these cases might be associated with palindrome-dinucleotides. For example, one-base shift to the left brings arginine codons CGN, with CG at 1-2 positions, to the respective anticodons NCG, with CG at 2-3 positions. Formally, the concomitant presence of codons and anticodons is also expected in the reverse situation, with codons containing palindrome-dinucleotides at their 2-3 positions, and anticodons exhibiting them at 1-2 positions. A closer analysis reveals that, surprisingly, RNA binding sites for Arg, Ile and Tyr "prefer" (exactly as in the actual genetic code) the anticodon(2-3)/codon(1-2) tetramers to their anticodon(1-2)/codon(2-3) counterparts, despite the seemingly perfect symmetry of the latter. However, since in vitro selection of aa-specific RNA aptamers apparently had nothing to do with translation, this striking preference provides a new strong support to the notion of the genetic code emerging before translation, in response to catalytic (and possibly other) needs of ancient RNA life. Consistently with the pre-translation origin of the code, we propose here a new model of tRNA origin by the gradual, Fibonacci process-like, elongation of a tRNA molecule from a primordial coding triplet and 5'DCCA3' quadruplet (D is a base-determinator) to the eventual 76 base-long cloverleaf-shaped molecule.
Taken together, our findings necessarily imply that primordial tRNAs, tRNA aminoacylating ribozymes, and (later) the translation machinery in general have been co-evolving to ''fit'' the (likely already defined) genetic code, rather than the opposite way around. Coding triplets in this primal pre-translational code were likely similar to the anticodons, with second and third nucleotides being more important than the less specific first one. Later, when the code was expanding in co-evolution with the translation apparatus, the importance of 2-3 nucleotides of coding triplets "transferred" to the 1-2 nucleotides of their complements, thus distinguishing anticodons from codons. This evolutionary primacy of anticodons in genetic coding makes the hypothesis of primal stereo-chemical affinity between amino acids and cognate triplets, the hypothesis of coding coenzyme handles for amino acids, the hypothesis of tRNA-like genomic 3' tags suggesting that tRNAs originated in replication, and the hypothesis of ancient ribozymes-mediated operational code of tRNA aminoacylation not mutually contradicting but rather co-existing in harmony.
This article was reviewed by Eugene V. Koonin, Wentao Ma (nominated by Juergen Brosius) and Anthony Poole.
PMCID: PMC3050877  PMID: 21342520
7.  Complete Genome Sequence of Amino Acid-Utilizing Eubacterium acidaminophilum al-2 (DSM 3953) 
Genome Announcements  2014;2(3):e00573-14.
Eubacterium acidaminophilum is a strictly anaerobic, Gram-positive, rod-shaped bacterium which belongs to cluster XI of the Clostridia. It ferments amino acids by a Stickland reaction. The genome harbors a chromosome (2.25 Mb) and a megaplasmid (0.8 Mb). It contains several gene clusters coding for selenocysteine-containing, glycine-derived, and amino acid-degrading reductases.
PMCID: PMC4056300  PMID: 24926057
8.  A four-column theory for the origin of the genetic code: tracing the evolutionary pathways that gave rise to an optimized code 
Biology Direct  2009;4:16.
The arrangement of the amino acids in the genetic code is such that neighbouring codons are assigned to amino acids with similar physical properties. Hence, the effects of translational error are minimized with respect to randomly reshuffled codes. Further inspection reveals that it is amino acids in the same column of the code (i.e. same second base) that are similar, whereas those in the same row show no particular similarity. We propose a 'four-column' theory for the origin of the code that explains how the action of selection during the build-up of the code leads to a final code that has the observed properties.
The theory makes the following propositions. (i) The earliest amino acids in the code were those that are easiest to synthesize non-biologically, namely Gly, Ala, Asp, Glu and Val. (ii) These amino acids are assigned to codons with G at first position. Therefore the first code may have used only these codons. (iii) The code rapidly developed into a four-column code where all codons in the same column coded for the same amino acid: NUN = Val, NCN = Ala, NAN = Asp and/or Glu, and NGN = Gly. (iv) Later amino acids were added sequentially to the code by a process of subdivision of codon blocks in which a subset of the codons assigned to an early amino acid were reassigned to a later amino acid. (v) Later amino acids were added into positions formerly occupied by amino acids with similar properties because this can occur with minimal disruption to the proteins already encoded by the earlier code. As a result, the properties of the amino acids in the final code retain a four-column pattern that is a relic of the earliest stages of code evolution.
The driving force during this process is not the minimization of translational error, but positive selection for the increased diversity and functionality of the proteins that can be made with a larger amino acid alphabet. Nevertheless, the code that results is one in which translational error is minimized. We define a cost function with which we can compare the fitness of codes with varying numbers of amino acids, and a barrier function, which measures the change in cost immediately after addition of a new amino acid. We show that the barrier is positive if an amino acid is added into a column with dissimilar properties, but negative if an amino acid is added into a column with similar physical properties. Thus, natural selection favours the assignment of amino acids to the positions that they occupy in the final code.
This article was reviewed by David Ardell, Eugene Koonin and Stephen Freeland (nominated by Laurence Hurst)
PMCID: PMC2689856  PMID: 19393096
9.  Coding Constraints Modulate Chemically Spontaneous Mutational Replication Gradients in Mitochondrial Genomes 
Current Genomics  2012;13(1):37-54.
Distances from heavy and light strand replication origins determine duration mitochondrial DNA remains singlestranded during replication. Hydrolytic deaminations from A->G and C->T occur more on single- than doublestranded DNA. Corresponding replicational nucleotide gradients exist across mitochondrial genomes, most at 3rd, least 2nd codon positions. DNA singlestrandedness during RNA transcription causes gradients mainly in long-lived species with relatively slow metabolism (high transcription/replication ratios). Third codon nucleotide contents, evolutionary results of mutation cumulation, follow replicational, not transcriptional gradients in Homo; observed human mutations follow transcriptional gradients. Synonymous third codon position transitions potentially alter adaptive off frame information. No mutational gradients occur at synonymous positions forming off frame stops (these adaptively stop early accidental frameshifted protein synthesis), nor in regions coding for putative overlapping genes according to an overlapping genetic code reassigning stop codons to amino acids. Deviation of 3rd codon nucleotide contents from deamination gradients increases with coding importance of main frame 3rd codon positions in overlapping genes (greatest if these are 2nd position in overlapping genes). Third codon position deamination gradients calculated separately for each codon family are strongest where synonymous transitions are rarely pathogenic; weakest where transitions are frequently pathogenic. Synonymous mutations affect translational accuracy, such as error compensation of misloaded tRNAs by codon-anticodon mismatches (prevents amino acid misinsertion despite tRNA misacylation), a potential cause of pathogenic mutations at synonymous codon positions. Indeed, codon-family-specific gradients are inversely proportional to error compensation associated with gradient-promoted transitions. Deamination gradients reflect spontaneous chemical reactions in singlestranded DNA, but functional coding constraints modulate gradients.
PMCID: PMC3269015  PMID: 22942674
Frameshift; overlapping genetic code; protein synthesis; secondary structure formation; RNA synthesis; tRNA; transcription; translation.
10.  The Rodin-Ohno hypothesis that two enzyme superfamilies descended from one ancestral gene: an unlikely scenario for the origins of translation that will not be dismissed 
Biology Direct  2014;9:11.
Because amino acid activation is rate-limiting for uncatalyzed protein synthesis, it is a key puzzle in understanding the origin of the genetic code. Two unrelated classes (I and II) of contemporary aminoacyl-tRNA synthetases (aaRS) now translate the code. Observing that codons for the most highly conserved, Class I catalytic peptides, when read in the reverse direction, are very nearly anticodons for Class II defining catalytic peptides, Rodin and Ohno proposed that the two superfamilies descended from opposite strands of the same ancestral gene. This unusual hypothesis languished for a decade, perhaps because it appeared to be unfalsifiable.
The proposed sense/antisense alignment makes important predictions. Fragments that align in antiparallel orientations, and contain the respective active sites, should catalyze the same two reactions catalyzed by contemporary synthetases. Recent experiments confirmed that prediction. Invariant cores from both classes, called Urzymes after Ur = primitive, authentic, plus enzyme and representing ~20% of the contemporary structures, can be expressed and exhibit high, proportionate rate accelerations for both amino-acid activation and tRNA acylation. A major fraction (60%) of the catalytic rate acceleration by contemporary synthetases resides in segments that align sense/antisense. Bioinformatic evidence for sense/antisense ancestry extends to codons specifying the invariant secondary and tertiary structures outside the active sites of the two synthetase classes. Peptides from a designed, 46-residue gene constrained by Rosetta to encode Class I and II ATP binding sites with fully complementary sequences both accelerate amino acid activation by ATP ~400 fold.
Biochemical and bioinformatic results substantially enhance the posterior probability that ancestors of the two synthetase classes arose from opposite strands of the same ancestral gene. The remarkable acceleration by short peptides of the rate-limiting step in uncatalyzed protein synthesis, together with the synergy of synthetase Urzymes and their cognate tRNAs, introduce a new paradigm for the origin of protein catalysts, emphasize the potential relevance of an operational RNA code embedded in the tRNA acceptor stems, and challenge the RNA-World hypothesis.
This article was reviewed by Dr. Paul Schimmel (nominated by Laura Landweber), Dr. Eugene Koonin and Professor David Ardell.
PMCID: PMC4082485  PMID: 24927791
Aminoacyl-tRNA synthetases; Urzymes; Genetic code; Origin of Translation; RNA World hypothesis; Amino acid activation; Structural homology; Ancestral genes; Sense/antisense coding
11.  Do anticodons of misacylated tRNAs preferentially mismatch codons coding for the misloaded amino acid? 
BMC Molecular Biology  2010;11:41.
Accurate amino acid insertion during peptide elongation requires tRNAs loaded by cognate amino acids and that anticodons match codons. However, tRNA misloading does not necessarily cause misinsertions: misinsertion is avoided when anticodons mismatch codons coding for misloaded amino acids.
Presentation of the hypothesis
Occasional compensation of misacylation by codon-anticodon mismatch necessarily occurs. Putatively, occasional error compensation may be enhanced beyond the random combination of independent errors in tRNA loading and codon-anticodon interactions: tRNA misacylation might alter potentials for codon-anticodon mismatches, perhaps specifically increasing potentials for mismatching those codons coding for the misacylated non-cognate amino acid. This hypothetical phenomenon is called 'error coordination', in distinction from 'error compensation' that assumes independence between misacylation and mismatch.
Testing the hypothesis
Eventually, the hypothesis should be tested for each combination of amino acid misacylation and codon-anticodon mismatch, by comparing stabilities or frequencies of mismatched codon-anticodon duplexes formed by tRNAs loaded by their cognate amino acid with stabilities formed by that tRNA when misloaded with the amino acid coded by the mismatched codon. Competitive mismatching experiments between misloaded and correctly loaded tRNAs could also be useful, yet more sophisticated experiments.
Implications of the hypothesis
Detecting error coordination implies estimating error compensation, which also promotes protein synthesis accuracy. Hence even in the absence of evidence for error coordination, experiments would yield very useful insights into misacylation and mismatch processes. In case experiments consider post-transcriptional RNA modifications (especially at wobble positions), results on codon-anticodon mismatches would enable significant improvements and sophistications of secondary structure prediction softwares. Positive results would show that protein translation enhances accuracies of products, not of single steps in the production. Ancient translational machineries putatively optimized error coordination, especially before tRNA editing by tRNA synthetases evolved: few primitive, but functionally versatile tRNA species perhaps executed low accuracy translation. Systems artificially designed/selected for low complexity and high efficiency could make use of this property for anticodons with high levels of error compensation and coordination.
PMCID: PMC2887445  PMID: 20509917
12.  An extension of the coevolution theory of the origin of the genetic code 
Biology Direct  2008;3:37.
The coevolution theory of the origin of the genetic code suggests that the genetic code is an imprint of the biosynthetic relationships between amino acids. However, this theory does not seem to attribute a role to the biosynthetic relationships between the earliest amino acids that evolved along the pathways of energetic metabolism. As a result, the coevolution theory is unable to clearly define the very earliest phases of genetic code origin. In order to remove this difficulty, I here suggest an extension of the coevolution theory that attributes a crucial role to the first amino acids that evolved along these biosynthetic pathways and to their biosynthetic relationships, even when defined by the non-amino acid molecules that are their precursors.
It is re-observed that the first amino acids to evolve along these biosynthetic pathways are predominantly those codified by codons of the type GNN, and this observation is found to be statistically significant. Furthermore, the close biosynthetic relationships between the sibling amino acids Ala-Ser, Ser-Gly, Asp-Glu, and Ala-Val are not random in the genetic code table and reinforce the hypothesis that the biosynthetic relationships between these six amino acids played a crucial role in defining the very earliest phases of genetic code origin.
All this leads to the hypothesis that there existed a code, GNS, reflecting the biosynthetic relationships between these six amino acids which, as it defines the very earliest phases of genetic code origin, removes the main difficulty of the coevolution theory. Furthermore, it is here discussed how this code might have naturally led to the code codifying only for the domains of the codons of precursor amino acids, as predicted by the coevolution theory. Finally, the hypothesis here suggested also removes other problems of the coevolution theory, such as the existence for certain pairs of amino acids with an unclear biosynthetic relationship between the precursor and product amino acids and the collocation of Ala between the amino acids Val and Leu belonging to the pyruvate biosynthetic family, which the coevolution theory considered as belonging to different biosyntheses.
This article was reviewed by Rob Knight, Paul Higgs (nominated by Laura Landweber), and Eugene Koonin.
PMCID: PMC2538516  PMID: 18775066
13.  Clostridium sticklandii, a specialist in amino acid degradation:revisiting its metabolism through its genome sequence 
BMC Genomics  2010;11:555.
Clostridium sticklandii belongs to a cluster of non-pathogenic proteolytic clostridia which utilize amino acids as carbon and energy sources. Isolated by T.C. Stadtman in 1954, it has been generally regarded as a "gold mine" for novel biochemical reactions and is used as a model organism for studying metabolic aspects such as the Stickland reaction, coenzyme-B12- and selenium-dependent reactions of amino acids. With the goal of revisiting its carbon, nitrogen, and energy metabolism, and comparing studies with other clostridia, its genome has been sequenced and analyzed.
C. sticklandii is one of the best biochemically studied proteolytic clostridial species. Useful additional information has been obtained from the sequencing and annotation of its genome, which is presented in this paper. Besides, experimental procedures reveal that C. sticklandii degrades amino acids in a preferential and sequential way. The organism prefers threonine, arginine, serine, cysteine, proline, and glycine, whereas glutamate, aspartate and alanine are excreted. Energy conservation is primarily obtained by substrate-level phosphorylation in fermentative pathways. The reactions catalyzed by different ferredoxin oxidoreductases and the exergonic NADH-dependent reduction of crotonyl-CoA point to a possible chemiosmotic energy conservation via the Rnf complex. C. sticklandii possesses both the F-type and V-type ATPases. The discovery of an as yet unrecognized selenoprotein in the D-proline reductase operon suggests a more detailed mechanism for NADH-dependent D-proline reduction. A rather unusual metabolic feature is the presence of genes for all the enzymes involved in two different CO2-fixation pathways: C. sticklandii harbours both the glycine synthase/glycine reductase and the Wood-Ljungdahl pathways. This unusual pathway combination has retrospectively been observed in only four other sequenced microorganisms.
Analysis of the C. sticklandii genome and additional experimental procedures have improved our understanding of anaerobic amino acid degradation. Several specific metabolic features have been detected, some of which are very unusual for anaerobic fermenting bacteria. Comparative genomics has provided the opportunity to study the lifestyle of pathogenic and non-pathogenic clostridial species as well as to elucidate the difference in metabolic features between clostridia and other anaerobes.
PMCID: PMC3091704  PMID: 20937090
14.  One ancestor for two codes viewed from the perspective of two complementary modes of tRNA aminoacylation 
Biology Direct  2009;4:4.
The genetic code is brought into action by 20 aminoacyl-tRNA synthetases. These enzymes are evenly divided into two classes (I and II) that recognize tRNAs from the minor and major groove sides of the acceptor stem, respectively. We have reported recently that: (1) ribozymic precursors of the synthetases seem to have used the same two sterically mirror modes of tRNA recognition, (2) having these two modes might have helped in preventing erroneous aminoacylation of ancestral tRNAs with complementary anticodons, yet (3) the risk of confusion for the presumably earliest pairs of complementarily encoded amino acids had little to do with anticodons. Accordingly, in this communication we focus on the acceptor stem.
Our main result is the emergence of a palindrome structure for the acceptor stem's common ancestor, reconstructed from the phylogenetic trees of Bacteria, Archaea and Eukarya. In parallel, for pairs of ancestral tRNAs with complementary anticodons, we present updated evidence of concerted complementarity of the second bases in the acceptor stems. These two results suggest that the first pairs of "complementary" amino acids that were engaged in primordial coding, such as Gly and Ala, could have avoided erroneous aminoacylation if and only if the acceptor stems of their adaptors were recognized from the same, major groove, side. The class II protein synthetases then inherited this "primary preference" from isofunctional ribozymes.
Taken together, our results support the hypothesis that the genetic code per se (the one associated with the anticodons) and the operational code of aminoacylation (associated with the acceptor) diverged from a common ancestor that probably began developing before translation. The primordial advantage of linking some amino acids (most likely glycine and alanine) to the ancestral acceptor stem may have been selective retention in a protocell surrounded by a leaky membrane for use in nucleotide and coenzyme synthesis. Such acceptor stems (as cofactors) thus transferred amino acids as groups for biosynthesis. Later, with the advent of an anticodon loop, some amino acids (such as aspartic acid, histidine, arginine) assumed a catalytic role while bound to such extended adaptors, in line with the original coding coenzyme handle (CCH) hypothesis.
This article was reviewed by Rob Knight, Juergen Brosius and Anthony Poole.
PMCID: PMC2669802  PMID: 19173731
Journal of Bacteriology  1962;84(6):1268-1273.
Costilow, Ralph N. (Michigan State University, East Lansing). Fermentative activities of control and radiation-“killed” spores of Clostridium botulinum. J. Bacteriol. 84:1268–1273. 1962.—Spores of Clostridium botulinum 62-A exposed to high levels of ionizing radiation will undergo the initial steps in germination as rapidly as control spores. Manometric experiments demonstrated that these irradiated nonviable spores would ferment a tryptic digest of casein (Trypticase) at an increasing rate during germination, with the production of CO2 and H2. There was, however, an increasing lag in the development of rapid rates of fermentation as the radiation level was increased. Such a lag could be simulated by the addition of chloramphenicol, and the two effects were additive. By using high spore concentrations (about 8 mg/ml), it was possible to detect the fermentation of a number of individual amino acids and of glucose. Irradiation of spores at 8.3 × 105 rads had no measurable effect on the fermentation of l-arginine or glucose, or on the endogenous rate, but it partially inhibited the Stickland reaction with l-alanine and l-proline as substrates. The endogenous activity and the l-alanine, l-proline fermentation were also inhibited by chloramphenicol to basic levels which were the same in both control and irradiated spores. Neither the l-arginine nor glucose fermentation was inhibited by this antibiotic. The data indicate that spores of C. botulinum 62-A contain basic levels of the enzymes required for their primary catabolic processes, and that, as expected, ionizing radiation levels sufficient to render the spores nonviable do not significantly affect these enzymes. Furthermore, it is indicated that spores exposed to radiation levels of up to 1.25 × 106 rads retain the ability to synthesize new protein, although it appears to be somewhat impaired.
PMCID: PMC278057  PMID: 14023323
16.  The Stereochemical Basis of the Genetic Code and the (Mostly) Autotrophic Origin of Life 
Life  2014;4(4):1013-1025.
Spark-tube experiments and analysis of meteorite contents have led to the widespread notion that abiotic organic molecules were the first life components. However, there is a contradiction between the abundance of simple molecules, such as the amino acids glycine and alanine, observed in these studies, and the minimal functional complexity that even the least sophisticated living system should require. I will argue that although simple abiotic molecules must have primed proto-metabolic pathways, only Darwinian evolving systems could have generated life. This condition may have been initially fulfilled by both replicating RNAs and autocatalytic reaction chains, such as the reductive citric acid cycle. The interactions between nucleotides and biotic amino acids, which conferred new functionalities to the former, also resulted in the progressive stereochemical recognition of the latter by cognate anticodons. At this point only large enough amino acids would be recognized by the primordial RNA adaptors and could polymerize forming the first peptides. The gene duplication of RNA adaptors was a crucial event. By removing one of the anticodons from the acceptor stem the new RNA adaptor liberated itself from the stereochemical constraint and could be acylated by smaller amino acids. The emergence of messenger RNA and codon capture followed.
PMCID: PMC4284479  PMID: 25522252
primordial soup; stereochemical era; genetic code; autocatalytic cycle; low-specificity catalysts; origin of life
Journal of Bacteriology  1964;88(3):695-701.
Day, Lawrence E., (Michigan State University, East Lansing) and Ralph N. Costilow. Physiology of the sporulation process in Clostridium botulinum. II. Maturation of forespores. J. Bacteriol. 88:695–701. 1964.—Clostridium botulinum, strain 62-A, did not sporulate endotrophically, but forespores matured to refractile, heat-resistant spores when replaced in solutions containing l-alanine and l-proline, l-isoleucine and l-proline, or l-alanine and l-arginine. Solutions of l-arginine or l-citrulline would not support the maturation process. Acetate, CO2, and δ-amino valeric acid were produced during sporulation in a replacement solution of l-alanine and l-proline, indicating the operation of the Stickland reaction. There was no large uptake of either exogenous l-alanine or acetate during this process. Similarly, there was no apparent protein or nucleic acid synthesis, since high levels of chloramphenicol, 8-azaguanine, or mitomycin C failed to inhibit, and no significant amount of P32 was incorporated into the spore nucleic acids. Dipicolinic acid (DPA) was synthesized during forespore maturation. It is believed that these final steps in sporulation of C. botulinum require only an exogenous source of energy which can be obtained via the Stickland reaction system, and that the synthesis of DPA and other unknown materials relies primarily on endogenous substrates.
PMCID: PMC277368  PMID: 14208509
18.  CodonTest: Modeling Amino Acid Substitution Preferences in Coding Sequences 
PLoS Computational Biology  2010;6(8):e1000885.
Codon models of evolution have facilitated the interpretation of selective forces operating on genomes. These models, however, assume a single rate of non-synonymous substitution irrespective of the nature of amino acids being exchanged. Recent developments have shown that models which allow for amino acid pairs to have independent rates of substitution offer improved fit over single rate models. However, these approaches have been limited by the necessity for large alignments in their estimation. An alternative approach is to assume that substitution rates between amino acid pairs can be subdivided into rate classes, dependent on the information content of the alignment. However, given the combinatorially large number of such models, an efficient model search strategy is needed. Here we develop a Genetic Algorithm (GA) method for the estimation of such models. A GA is used to assign amino acid substitution pairs to a series of rate classes, where is estimated from the alignment. Other parameters of the phylogenetic Markov model, including substitution rates, character frequencies and branch lengths are estimated using standard maximum likelihood optimization procedures. We apply the GA to empirical alignments and show improved model fit over existing models of codon evolution. Our results suggest that current models are poor approximations of protein evolution and thus gene and organism specific multi-rate models that incorporate amino acid substitution biases are preferred. We further anticipate that the clustering of amino acid substitution rates into classes will be biologically informative, such that genes with similar functions exhibit similar clustering, and hence this clustering will be useful for the evolutionary fingerprinting of genes.
Author Summary
Evolution in protein-coding DNA sequences can be modeled at three levels: nucleotides, amino acids or codons that encode the amino acids. Codon models incorporate nucleotide and amino acid information, and allow the estimation of the rate at which amino acids are replaced () versus the rate at which they are preserved (). The ratio has been used in thousands of studies to detect molecular footprints of natural selection. A serious limitation of most codon models is the unrealistic assumption that all non-synonymous substitutions occur at the same rate. Indeed, amino acid models have consistently demonstrated that different residues are exchanged more or less frequently, depending on incompletely understood factors. We derive and validate a computational approach for inferring codon models which combine the power to investigate natural selection with data-driven amino acid substitution biases from alignments. The addition of amino acid properties can lead to more powerful and accurate methods for studying natural selection and the evolutionary history of protein-coding sequences. The pattern of amino acid substitutions specific to a given alignment can be used to compare and contrast the evolutionary properties of different genes, providing an evolutionary analog to protein family comparisons.
PMCID: PMC2924240  PMID: 20808876
19.  The enigmatic mitochondrial genome of Rhabdopleura compacta (Pterobranchia) reveals insights into selection of an efficient tRNA system and supports monophyly of Ambulacraria 
The Hemichordata comprises solitary-living Enteropneusta and colonial-living Pterobranchia, sharing morphological features with both Chordata and Echinodermata. Despite their key role for understanding deuterostome evolution, hemichordate phylogeny is controversial and only few molecular data are available for phylogenetic analysis. Furthermore, mitochondrial sequences are completely lacking for pterobranchs. Therefore, we determined and analyzed the complete mitochondrial genome of the pterobranch Rhabdopleura compacta to elucidate deuterostome evolution. Thereby, we also gained important insights in mitochondrial tRNA evolution.
The mitochondrial DNA of Rhabdopleura compacta corresponds in size and gene content to typical mitochondrial genomes of metazoans, but shows the strongest known strand-specific mutational bias in the nucleotide composition among deuterostomes with a very GT-rich main-coding strand. The order of the protein-coding genes in R. compacta is similar to that of the deuterostome ground pattern. However, the protein-coding genes have been highly affected by a strand-specific mutational pressure showing unusual codon frequency and amino acid composition. This composition caused extremely long branches in phylogenetic analyses. The unusual codon frequency points to a selection pressure on the tRNA translation system to codon-anticodon sequences of highest versatility instead of showing adaptations in anticodon sequences to the most frequent codons. Furthermore, an assignment of the codon AGG to Lysine has been detected in the mitochondrial genome of R. compacta, which is otherwise observed only in the mitogenomes of some arthropods. The genomes of these arthropods do not have such a strong strand-specific bias as found in R. compacta but possess an identical mutation in the anticodon sequence of the tRNALys.
A strong reversed asymmetrical mutational constraint in the mitochondrial genome of Rhabdopleura compacta may have arisen by an inversion of the replication direction and adaptation to this bias in the protein sequences leading to an enigmatic mitochondrial genome. Although, phylogenetic analyses of protein coding sequences are hampered, features of the tRNA system of R. compacta support the monophyly of Ambulacraria. The identical reassignment of AGG to Lysine in two distinct groups may have occurred by convergent evolution in the anticodon sequence of the tRNALys.
PMCID: PMC3121625  PMID: 21599892
Hemichordata; Pterobranchia; deuterostome evolution; codon reassignment; codon-anticodon adaptation
20.  Evolution of the genetic code: partial optimization of a random code for robustness to translation error in a rugged fitness landscape 
Biology Direct  2007;2:24.
The standard genetic code table has a distinctly non-random structure, with similar amino acids often encoded by codons series that differ by a single nucleotide substitution, typically, in the third or the first position of the codon. It has been repeatedly argued that this structure of the code results from selective optimization for robustness to translation errors such that translational misreading has the minimal adverse effect. Indeed, it has been shown in several studies that the standard code is more robust than a substantial majority of random codes. However, it remains unclear how much evolution the standard code underwent, what is the level of optimization, and what is the likely starting point.
We explored possible evolutionary trajectories of the genetic code within a limited domain of the vast space of possible codes. Only those codes were analyzed for robustness to translation error that possess the same block structure and the same degree of degeneracy as the standard code. This choice of a small part of the vast space of possible codes is based on the notion that the block structure of the standard code is a consequence of the structure of the complex between the cognate tRNA and the codon in mRNA where the third base of the codon plays a minimum role as a specificity determinant. Within this part of the fitness landscape, a simple evolutionary algorithm, with elementary evolutionary steps comprising swaps of four-codon or two-codon series, was employed to investigate the optimization of codes for the maximum attainable robustness. The properties of the standard code were compared to the properties of four sets of codes, namely, purely random codes, random codes that are more robust than the standard code, and two sets of codes that resulted from optimization of the first two sets. The comparison of these sets of codes with the standard code and its locally optimized version showed that, on average, optimization of random codes yielded evolutionary trajectories that converged at the same level of robustness to translation errors as the optimization path of the standard code; however, the standard code required considerably fewer steps to reach that level than an average random code. When evolution starts from random codes whose fitness is comparable to that of the standard code, they typically reach much higher level of optimization than the standard code, i.e., the standard code is much closer to its local minimum (fitness peak) than most of the random codes with similar levels of robustness. Thus, the standard genetic code appears to be a point on an evolutionary trajectory from a random point (code) about half the way to the summit of the local peak. The fitness landscape of code evolution appears to be extremely rugged, containing numerous peaks with a broad distribution of heights, and the standard code is relatively unremarkable, being located on the slope of a moderate-height peak.
The standard code appears to be the result of partial optimization of a random code for robustness to errors of translation. The reason the code is not fully optimized could be the trade-off between the beneficial effect of increasing robustness to translation errors and the deleterious effect of codon series reassignment that becomes increasingly severe with growing complexity of the evolving system. Thus, evolution of the code can be represented as a combination of adaptation and frozen accident.
This article was reviewed by David Ardell, Allan Drummond (nominated by Laura Landweber), and Rob Knight.
Open Peer Review
This article was reviewed by David Ardell, Allan Drummond (nominated by Laura Landweber), and Rob Knight.
PMCID: PMC2211284  PMID: 17956616
21.  Nature of the hisD3018 Frameshift Mutation in Salmonella typhimurium 
Journal of Bacteriology  1969;100(1):460-468.
Histidinol dehydrogenase from three differing revertants of ICR-191A-induced frameshift hisD3018 has been purified and examined for amino acid replacements. The enzyme from one spontaneously arising revertant, R7, contains an extra proline residue, whereas that from another, R5, contains an extensive frameshifted sequence, four amino acid residues of which have been identified to date. The amino acid replacement data are in agreement with the in vitro code word assignments and allow the characterization of the hisD3018 frameshift as an addition of one nucleotide pair, most likely guanine plus cytosine. Enzymatic data for those ICR-191A-induced revertants of hisD3018 arising within the hisD gene indicate that the enzyme is wild type and, therefore, that ICR-191A can cause deletions as well as additions of single base pairs. The wild-type amino acid sequence is restored in enzyme from an N-methyl-N′-nitro-N-nitrosoguanidine (NG)-induced revertant, R29, suggesting that NG is a base-deleting as well as a base-substituting mutagen. The unusual response of hisD3018 to external suppressors is considered in terms of reinitiation of protein synthesis out of phase, coupled with suppression of a nonpermissive missense codon so generated, and of an alternative hypothesis invoking a true frameshift suppressor transfer ribonucleic acid with an extended or deleted anticodon.
PMCID: PMC315414  PMID: 4899005
22.  Exceptional error minimization in putative primordial genetic codes 
Biology Direct  2009;4:44.
The standard genetic code is redundant and has a highly non-random structure. Codons for the same amino acids typically differ only by the nucleotide in the third position, whereas similar amino acids are encoded, mostly, by codon series that differ by a single base substitution in the third or the first position. As a result, the code is highly albeit not optimally robust to errors of translation, a property that has been interpreted either as a product of selection directed at the minimization of errors or as a non-adaptive by-product of evolution of the code driven by other forces.
We investigated the error-minimization properties of putative primordial codes that consisted of 16 supercodons, with the third base being completely redundant, using a previously derived cost function and the error minimization percentage as the measure of a code's robustness to mistranslation. It is shown that, when the 16-supercodon table is populated with 10 putative primordial amino acids, inferred from the results of abiotic synthesis experiments and other evidence independent of the code's evolution, and with minimal assumptions used to assign the remaining supercodons, the resulting 2-letter codes are nearly optimal in terms of the error minimization level.
The results of the computational experiments with putative primordial genetic codes that contained only two meaningful letters in all codons and encoded 10 to 16 amino acids indicate that such codes are likely to have been nearly optimal with respect to the minimization of translation errors. This near-optimality could be the outcome of extensive early selection during the co-evolution of the code with the primordial, error-prone translation system, or a result of a unique, accidental event. Under this hypothesis, the subsequent expansion of the code resulted in a decrease of the error minimization level that became sustainable owing to the evolution of a high-fidelity translation system.
This article was reviewed by Paul Higgs (nominated by Arcady Mushegian), Rob Knight, and Sandor Pongor. For the complete reports, go to the Reviewers' Reports section.
PMCID: PMC2785773  PMID: 19925661
23.  Origin and evolution of the genetic code: the universal enigma 
Iubmb Life  2009;61(2):99-111.
The genetic code is nearly universal, and the arrangement of the codons in the standard codon table is highly non-random. The three main concepts on the origin and evolution of the code are the stereochemical theory, according to which codon assignments are dictated by physico-chemical affinity between amino acids and the cognate codons (anticodons); the coevolution theory, which posits that the code structure coevolved with amino acid biosynthesis pathways; and the error minimization theory under which selection to minimize the adverse effect of point mutations and translation errors was the principal factor of the code’s evolution. These theories are not mutually exclusive and are also compatible with the frozen accident hypothesis, i.e., the notion that the standard code might have no special properties but was fixed simply because all extant life forms share a common ancestor, with subsequent changes to the code, mostly, precluded by the deleterious effect of codon reassignment. Mathematical analysis of the structure and possible evolutionary trajectories of the code shows that it is highly robust to translational misreading but there are numerous more robust codes, so the standard code potentially could evolve from a random code via a short sequence of codon series reassignments. Thus, much of the evolution that led to the standard code could be a combination of frozen accident with selection for error minimization although contributions from coevolution of the code with metabolic pathways and weak affinities between amino acids and nucleotide triplets cannot be ruled out. However, such scenarios for the code evolution are based on formal schemes whose relevance to the actual primordial evolution is uncertain. A real understanding of the code origin and evolution is likely to be attainable only in conjunction with a credible scenario for the evolution of the coding principle itself and the translation system.
PMCID: PMC3293468  PMID: 19117371
24.  Molecular and biochemical characterization of the human trk proto-oncogene. 
Molecular analysis of the human trk oncogene, a transforming gene isolated from a colon carcinoma biopsy, revealed the existence of a novel member of the tyrosine kinase gene family. This locus, which we now designate the trk proto-oncogene, codes for a protein of 790 amino acid residues that has several features characteristic of cell surface receptors. They include (i) a 32-amino-acid-long putative signal peptide, (ii) an amino-terminal moiety (residues 33 to 407) rich in consensus sites for N-glycosylation, (iii) a transmembrane domain, (iv) a kinase catalytic region highly related to that of other tyrosine kinases, and (v) a very short (15 residue) carboxy-terminal tail. Residues 1 to 392 were absent in the trk oncogene, as they were replaced by tropomyosin sequences. However, no other differences were found between the transforming and nontransforming trk alleles (residues 392 to 790), suggesting that no additional mutations are required to activate the transforming potential of this gene. The human trk proto-oncogene codes for a 140,000-dalton glycoprotein, designated gp140proto-trk. However, its primary translational product is a 110,000-dalton glycoprotein which becomes immediately glycosylated, presumably during its translocation into the endoplasmic reticulum. This molecule, designated gp110proto-trk, is further glycosylated to yield the mature form, gp140proto-trk. Both gp110proto-trk and gp140proto-trk proteins possess in vitro kinase activity specific for tyrosine residues. Finally, iodination of intact NIH 3T3 cells expressing trk proto-oncogene products indicated that only the mature form, gp140proto-trk, cross the plasma membrane, becoming exposed to the outside of the cell. These results indicate that the product of the human trk locus is a novel tyrosine kinase cell surface receptor for an as yet unknown ligand.
PMCID: PMC362141  PMID: 2927393
25.  A Model of Proto-Anti-Codon RNA Enzymes Requiring l-Amino Acid Homochirality 
Journal of Molecular Evolution  2011;73(1-2):10-22.
All living organisms encode the 20 natural amino acid units of polypeptides using a universal scheme of triplet nucleotide “codons”. Disparate features of this codon scheme are potentially informative of early molecular evolution: (i) the absence of any codons for d-amino acids; (ii) the odd combination of alternate codon patterns for some amino acids; (iii) the confinement of synonymous positions to a codon’s third nucleotide; (iv) the use of 20 specific amino acids rather than a number closer to the full coding potential of 64; and (v) the evolutionary relationship of patterns in stop codons to amino acid codons. Here I propose a model for an ancestral proto-anti-codon RNA (pacRNA) auto-aminoacylation system and show that pacRNAs would naturally manifest features of the codon table. I show that pacRNAs could implement all the steps for auto-aminoacylation: amino acid coordination, intermediate activation of the amino acid by the 5′-end of the pacRNA, and 3′-aminoacylation of the pacRNA. The anti-codon cradles of pacRNAs would have been able to recognize and coordinate only a small number of l-amino acids via hydrogen bonding. A need for proper spatial coordination would have limited the number of chargeable amino acids for all anti-codon sequences, in addition to making some anti-codon sequences unsuitable. Thus, the pacRNA model implies that the idiosyncrasies of the anti-codon table and l-amino acid homochirality co-evolved during a single evolutionary period. These results further imply that early life consisted of an aminoacylated RNA world with a richer enzymatic potential than ribonucleotides alone.
PMCID: PMC3223571  PMID: 21779963
RNA world; Proto-anti-codons; Homochirality; Molecular evolution; Ribozymes

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