Pathways of Genetic Code Evolution in Ancient and Modern Organisms
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There have been two distinct phases of evolution of the genetic code: an ancient phase--prior to the divergence of the three domains of life, during which the standard genetic code was established--and a modern phase, in which many alternative codes have arisen in specific groups of genomes that differ only slightly from the standard code. Here we discuss the factors that are most important in these two phases, and we argue that these are substantially different. In the modern phase, changes are driven by chance events such as tRNA gene deletions and codon disappearance events. Selection acts as a barrier to prevent changes in the code. In contrast, in the ancient phase, selection for increased diversity of amino acids in the code can be a driving force for addition of new amino acids. The pathway of code evolution is constrained by avoiding disruption of genes that are already encoded by earlier versions of the code. The current arrangement of the standard code suggests that it evolved from a four-column code in which Gly, Ala, Asp, and Val were the earliest encoded amino acids.
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