Indexed on: 29 Mar '07Published on: 29 Mar '07Published in: Journal of Molecular Evolution
Using a comparative genomics approach we demonstrate a negative correlation between the number of codon reassignments undergone by 222 mitochondrial genomes and the mitochondrial genome size, the number of mitochondrial ORFs, and the sizes of the large and small subunit mitochondrial rRNAs. In addition, we show that the TGA-to-tryptophan codon reassignment, which has occurred 11 times in mitochondrial genomes, is found in mitochondrial genomes smaller than those which have not undergone the reassignment. We therefore propose that mitochondrial codon reassignments occur in a wide range of phyla, particularly in Metazoa, due to a reduced "proteomic constraint" on the mitochondrial genetic code, compared to the nuclear genetic code. The reduced proteomic constraint reflects the small size of the mitochondrial-encoded proteome and allows codon reassignments to occur with less likelihood of lethality. In addition, we demonstrate a striking link between nonsense codon reassignments and the decoding properties of naturally occurring nonsense suppressor tRNAs. This suggests that natural preexisting nonsense suppression facilitated nonsense codon reassignments and constitutes a novel mechanism of genetic code change. These findings explain for the first time the identity of the stop codons and amino acids reassigned in mitochondrial and nuclear genomes. Nonsense suppressor tRNAs provided the raw material for nonsense codon reassignments, implying that the properties of the tRNA anticodon have dictated the identity of nonsense codon reassignments.