The flow of genetic information in cells from DNA to mRNA to protein is described by the central dogma, which states that genes specify the sequence of mRNAs, which in turn specify the sequence of amino acids making up all proteins. The decoding of one molecule to another is performed by specific proteins and RNAs. Because the information stored in DNA is so central to cellular function, it makes intuitive sense that the cell would make mRNA copies of this information for protein synthesis while keeping the DNA itself intact and protected. The copying of DNA to RNA is relatively straightforward, with one nucleotide being added to the mRNA strand for every nucleotide read in the DNA strand. The translation to protein is a bit more complex because three mRNA nucleotides correspond to one amino acid in the polypeptide sequence. However, the translation to protein is still systematic and collinear, such that nucleotides 1 to 3 correspond to amino acid 1, nucleotides 4 to 6 correspond to amino acid 2, and so on.
The Genetic Code Is Degenerate and Universal
Each amino acid is defined by a three-nucleotide sequence called the triplet codon. Given the different numbers of “letters” in the mRNA and protein “alphabets,” scientists theorized that single amino acids must be represented by combinations of nucleotides. Nucleotide doublets would not be sufficient to specify every amino acid because there are only 16 possible two-nucleotide combinations (42). In contrast, there are 64 possible nucleotide triplets (43), which is far more than the number of amino acids. Scientists theorized that amino acids were encoded by nucleotide triplets and that the genetic code was “degenerate.” In other words, a given amino acid could be encoded by more than one nucleotide triplet. This was later confirmed experimentally: Francis Crick and Sydney Brenner used the chemical mutagen proflavin to insert one, two, or three nucleotides into the gene of a virus. When one or two nucleotides were inserted, the normal proteins were not produced. When three nucleotides were inserted, the protein was synthesized and functional. This demonstrated that the amino acids must be specified by groups of three nucleotides. These nucleotide triplets are called codons. The insertion of one or two nucleotides completely changed the triplet reading frame, thereby altering the message for every subsequent amino acid. Though insertion of three nucleotides caused an extra amino acid to be inserted during translation, the integrity of the rest of the protein was maintained.
In addition to codons that instruct the addition of a specific amino acid to a polypeptide chain, three of the 64 codons terminate protein synthesis and release the polypeptide from the translation machinery. These triplets are called nonsense codons or stop codons. Another codon, AUG, also has a special function. In addition to specifying the amino acid methionine, it also serves as the start codon to initiate translation. The reading frame for translation is set by the AUG start codon near the 5' end of the mRNA. Following the start codon, the mRNA is read in groups of three until a stop codon is encountered.
The specification of a single amino acid by multiple similar codons is called "degeneracy." Degeneracy is believed to be a cellular mechanism to reduce the negative impact of random mutations. Codons that specify the same amino acid typically only differ by one nucleotide. In addition, amino acids with chemically similar side chains are encoded by similar codons. For example, aspartate (Asp) and glutamate (Glu), which occupy the GA* block, are both negatively charged. This nuance of the genetic code ensures that a single-nucleotide substitution mutation might specify the same amino acid but have no effect or specify a similar amino acid, preventing the protein from being rendered completely nonfunctional.
The genetic code is nearly universal. With a few minor exceptions, virtually all species use the same genetic code for protein synthesis. Conservation of codons means that a purified mRNA encoding the globin protein in horses could be transferred to a tulip cell, and the tulip would synthesize horse globin. That there is only one genetic code is powerful evidence that all of life on Earth shares a common origin, especially considering that there are about 1084 possible combinations of 20 amino acids and 64 triplet codons.