Evolution of tRNA recognition systems and tRNA gene sequences

Margaret E. Saks, Jeffrey R. Sampson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The aminoacylation of tRNAs by the aminoacyl-tRNA synthetases recapitulates the genetic code by dictating the association between amino acids and tRNA anticodons. The sequences of tRNAs were analyzed to investigate the nature of primordial recognition systems and to make inferences about the evolution of tRNA gene sequences and the evolution of the genetic code. Evidence is presented that primordial synthetases recognized acceptor stem nucleotides prior to the establishment of the three major phylogenetic lineages. However, acceptor stem sequences probably did not achieve a level of sequence diversity sufficient to faithfully specify the anticodon assignments of all 20 amino acids. This putative bottleneck in the evolution of the genetic code may have been alleviated by the advent of anticodon recognition. A phylogenetic analysis of tRNA gene sequences from the deep Archaea revealed groups that are united by sequence motifs which are located within a region of the tRNA that is involved in determining its tertiary structure. An association between the third anticodon nucleotide (N36) and these sequence motifs suggests that a tRNA-like structure existed close to the time that amino acid-anticodon assignments were being established. The sequence analysis also revealed that tRNA genes may evolve by anticodon mutations that recruit tRNAs from one isoaccepting group to another. Thus tRNA gene evolution may not always be monophyletic with respect to each isoaccepting group.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)509-518
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Molecular Evolution
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 1995
Externally publishedYes


  • Gene recruitment
  • Genetic code
  • tRNA gene evolution
  • tRNA recognition

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Molecular Biology
  • Genetics


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