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.