Wednesday, August 17, 2005

630: Scientists Crack 40-year-old DNA Puzzle And Point To 'Hot Soup' At The Origin Of Life

Scientists Crack 40-year-old DNA Puzzle And Point To 'Hot Soup' At The Origin Of Life:

In a paper published in the Journal of Molecular Evolution this week, researchers from the University of Bath describe a new theory which they believe could solve a puzzle that has baffled scientists since they first deciphered the language of DNA almost 40 years ago.

why there should be 64 words in the DNA dictionary which translate into just 20 amino acids, and why a process that is more complex than it needs to be should have evolved in the first place, has puzzled scientists for the last 40 years.

Dozens of scientists have suggested theories to solve the puzzle, but these have been quickly discounted or failed to explain some of the other quirks in protein synthesis.

One of quirks of the genetic code is that there are groups of codons which all translate to the same amino acid. For example, the amino acid leucine can be translated from six different codons whilst some amino acids, which have equally important functions and are translated in the same amount, have just one.

The new theory builds on an original idea suggested by Francis Crick - one of the discoverers of the structure of DNA - that the three-letter code evolved from a simpler two-letter code, although Crick thought the difference in number was simply an accident “frozen in time”.

The University of Bath researchers suggest that the primordial ‘doublet’ code was read in threes - but with only either the first two ‘prefix’ or last two ‘suffix’ pairs of bases being actively read.

By combining arrangements of these doublet codes together, the scientists can replicate the table of amino acids - explaining why some amino acids can be translated from groups of 2, 4 or 6 codons. They can also show how the groups of water loving (hydrophilic) and water-hating (hydrophobic) amino acids emerge naturally in the table, evolving from overlapping ‘prefix’ and ‘suffix’ codons.

“When you evolve our theory for a doublet system into a triplet system, you get an exact match up with the number and range of amino acids we see today,” said Dr van den Elsen, who has worked with Dr Stefan Babgy and Huan-Lin Wu on the theory.

“This simple theory explains many unresolved features of the current genetic code. No one has ever been able to do this before, so we are very excited.”

The theory also explains how the structure of the genetic code maximises error tolerance. For instance, ‘slippage’ in the translation process tends to produce another amino acid with the same characteristics, and explains why the DNA code is so good at maintaining its integrity.

“This is important because these kinds of mistakes can be fatal for an organism,” said Dr van den Elsen. “None of the older theories can explain how this error tolerant structure might have arisen.”

The new theory also highlights two amino acids that can be excluded from the doublet system and are likely to be relatively recent ‘acquisitions’ by the genetic code. As these amino acids - glutamine and asparagine - are unable to hold their shape in high temperatures, this suggests that heat prevented them from being acquired by the code at some point in the past.
Research into the evolution of DNA, and evolutionary hypotheses to be tested.