Abstract

The genetic code is degenerate. With the exception of two amino acids (Met and Trp), all other amino acid residues are each encoded by multiple, so-called synonymous codons. Synonymous codons were initially presumed to have entirely equivalent functions, however, the finding that synonymous codons are not present at equal frequencies in genes/genomes suggested that codon choice might have functional implications beyond amino acid coding. The pattern of non-uniform codon use (known as codon usage bias) varies between organisms and represents a unique feature of an organism. Organism-specific codon choice is related to organism-specific differences in populations of cognate tRNAs. This implies that, in a given organism, frequently used codons will be translated more rapidly than infrequently used ones and vice versa . A theory of codon-tRNA co-evolution (necessary to balance accurate and efficient protein production) was put forward to explain the existence of codon usage bias. This model suggests that selection favours preferred (frequent) over un-preferred (rare) codons in order to sustain efficient protein production in cells and that a given un-preferred codon will have the same effect on an organism’s fitness regardless of its position within an mRNA’s open reading frame. However, many recent studies refute this prediction. Un-preferred codons have been found to have important functional roles and their effects appeared to be position-dependent. Synonymous codon usage affects the efficiency/stringency of mRNA decoding, mRNA biogenesis/stability, and protein secretion and folding. This review summarizes recent developments in the field that have identified novel functions of synonymous codons and their usage.

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