Cracking the genetic code

In the same way that Alan Turing decoded Enigma, the encryption machine used by the German army in World War II, several scientists managed to decipher the genetic code. The solution to this framework has allowed us to understand how cells work and make genetic manipulation possible.

INTRODUCTION

A code is a system of replacing the words in a message with other words or symbols, so that nobody can understand it unless they know the system. For example the genetic code.

Although it seems to be a lie, all living beings (except for some bacteria) biologically work in the same way. And it is that Jacques Monod already said, everything that is verified as true for E. coli must also be true for elephants.

From the cells of the blue whale, the largest animal on the planet, to the cells of a hummingbird, passing through humans, are the same. This is thanks to the genetic code, which allows the information of each gene to be transmitted to the proteins, the executors of this information.

This flow of information was named by Francis Crick, in 1958, as the central dogma of molecular biology (Figure 1). In it he claimed that information flows from DNA to RNA, and then from RNA to proteins. This is how genetic information is transmitted and expressed unidirectionally. However, later modifications were added. Crick claimed that only DNA can be duplicated and transcribed to RNA. However, it has been seen that the replication of its RNA also occurs in viruses and that it can perform a reverse transcription to generate DNA again.

main-qimg-eee77f2b58be05c964ce0c04756f2cfb
Figure 1. Central dogma of molecular biology. Red arrows: Francis Crick’s way. Grey arrows: later modifications (Source: Quora)

THREE LANGUAGES OF CELLS

Inside the cells three different languages ​​are spoken, but they can be related through the genetic code.

The one we already know is the language of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), wound in a double chain and composed of 4 letters that correspond to the nitrogenous bases: adenine (A), thymine (T), cytosine (C) and guanine (G).

Another language very similar to the latter is that of RNA. It differs from DNA mainly in three aspects: (i) it is composed of a single chain instead of being double-stranded, (ii) its sugars are ribose instead of deoxyribose (hence the name of ribonucleic acid) and (iii) it contains the base uracil (U) instead of T. Neither the change of sugar nor the substitution of U by T alters the pairing with base A, so that RNA synthesis can be performed directly on a DNA template.

The last language that remains for us to know is that of proteins, formed by 20 amino acids. The amino acids constitute each and every one of the proteins of any living organism. The order of the amino acids that form the chain of the protein determines its function (Figure 2).

aminoacids
Figure 2. Table of 20 amino acids (Source: Compound Interest)

THE GENETIC CODE

As we have been saying, the genetic code is the rules that follow the nucleotide sequence of a gene, through the RNA intermediary, to be translated into an amino acid sequence of a protein. There are several types of RNA, but the one that interests us is the messenger RNA (mRNA), essential in the transcription process.
The cells decode the RNA by reading its nucleotides in groups of three (Figure 3). Since mRNA is a polymer of four different nucleotides, there are 64 possible combinations of three nucleotides (43). This brings us to one of its characteristics: it is degenerate. This means that there are several triplets for the same amino acid (synonymous codons). For example, proline is coded by the triplets CCU, CCC, CCA and CCG.

genetic_code_med
Figure 3. The genetic code with the table of 20 amino acids (Source: BioNinja)

The genetic code is not ambiguous since each triplet has its own meaning. All triplets make sense, either encode a particular amino acid or indicate read completion. Most amino acids are encoded by at least two codons. Methionine and tryptophan are the only amino acids that are codified only by a codon. But each codon codes only for an amino acid or stop sign. In addition, it is unidirectional, all triplets are read in the 5′-3′ direction.
The AUG codon serves as the start codon at which translation begins. There is only one start codon that codes for the amino acid methionine, while there are three stop codons (UAA, UAG and UGA). These codons cause the polypeptide to be released from the ribosome, where the translation occurs.
The position of the start codon determines the point where translation of the mRNA and its reading frame will begin. This last point is important because the same nucleotide sequence can encode completely different polypeptides depending on the frame in which it is read (Figure 4). However, only one of the three reading patterns of a mRNA encodes the correct protein. The displacement in the reading frame causes the message no longer to make sense.

Marco de Lectura
Figure 4. Possible frameshifts (Source: marcoregalia.com)

 

As we said at the beginning, one of the main characteristics of the genetic code is that it is universal, since almost all living beings use it (with the exception of some bacteria). This is important because a genetic code shared by such diverse organisms provides important evidence of a common origin of life on Earth. The species of the Earth of today probably evolved from an ancestral organism in which the genetic code was already present. Because it is essential for cellular function, it should tend to remain unchanged in the species through the generations. This type of evolutionary process can explain the remarkable similarity of the genetic code in present organisms.

Although the human being itself continues to be an enigma for science, the revolution of the deciphering of the genetic code has allowed us to delve into the functioning of our body, specifically that of our cells, and cross borders to genetic manipulation.

 

REFERENCES

  • Alberts, B. et al. Biología molecular de la célula (2010). Editorial Omega, 5a edición
  • Cooper, G.M., Hausman R.E. La Célula (2009). Editorial Marbán, 5a edición
  • Gotta Love Cells
  • BioNinja
  • Main picture: eldiario.es

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