At some stage of evolution, genes of organisms may have encoded proteins that were synthesized using fewer than 20 unique amino acids. Similar to evolution of the natural 19-amino-acid proteins GroEL/ES, proteins composed of 19 unique amino acids would have been able to evolve by accumulating beneficial mutations within the 19-amino-acid repertoire encoded in an ancestral genetic code. Because Trp is thought to be the last amino acid included in the canonical 20-amino-acid repertoire, this late stage of protein evolution could be mimicked by experimental evolution of 19-amino-acid proteins without tryptophan (Trp). To further understand the evolution of proteins, we tried to mimic the evolution of a 19-amino-acid protein involving the accumulation of beneficial mutations using directed evolution by random mutagenesis on the whole targeted gene sequence. We created active 19-amino-acid green fluorescent proteins (GFPs) without Trp from a poorly fluorescent 19-amino-acid mutant, S1-W57F, by using directed evolution with two rounds of mutagenesis and selection. The N105I and S205T mutations showed beneficial effects on the S1-W57F mutant. When these two mutations were combined on S1-W57F, we observed an additive effect on the fluorescence intensity. In contrast, these mutations showed no clear improvement individually or in combination on GFPS1, which is the parental GFP mutant composed of 20 amino acids. Our results provide an additional example for the experimental evolution of 19-amino-acid proteins without Trp, and would help understand the mechanisms underlying the evolution of 19-amino-acid proteins. (236 words).
At earlier stages in the evolution of the universal genetic code, fewer than 20 amino acids were considered to be used. Although this notion is supported by a wide range of data, the actual existence and function of the genetic codes with a limited set of canonical amino acids have not been addressed experimentally, in contrast to the successful development of the expanded codes. Here, we constructed artificial genetic codes involving a reduced alphabet. In one of the codes, a tRNAAla variant with the Trp anticodon reassigns alanine to an unassigned UGG codon in the Escherichia coli S30 cell-free translation system lacking tryptophan. We confirmed that the efficiency and accuracy of protein synthesis by this Trp-lacking code were comparable to those by the universal genetic code, by an amino acid composition analysis, green fluorescent protein fluorescence measurements and the crystal structure determination. We also showed that another code, in which UGU/UGC codons are assigned to Ser, synthesizes an active enzyme. This method will provide not only new insights into primordial genetic codes, but also an essential protein engineering tool for the assessment of the early stages of protein evolution and for the improvement of pharmaceuticals.
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