Background: Correlations between genome composition (in terms of GC content) and usage of particular codons and amino acids have been widely reported, but poorly explained. We show here that a simple model of processes acting at the nucleotide level explains codon usage across a large sample of species (311 bacteria, 28 archaea and 257 eukaryotes). The model quantitatively predicts responses (slope and intercept of the regression line on genome GC content) of individual codons and amino acids to genome composition.
Results: Codons respond to genome composition on the basis of their GC content relative to their synonyms (explaining 71-87% of the variance in response among the different codons, depending on measure). Amino-acid responses are determined by the mean GC content of their codons (explaining 71-79% of the variance). Similar trends hold for genes within a genome. Position-dependent selection for error minimization explains why individual bases respond differently to directional mutation pressure.
Conclusions: Our model suggests that GC content drives codon usage (rather than the converse). It unifies a large body of empirical evidence concerning relationships between GC content and amino-acid or codon usage in disparate systems. The relationship between GC content and codon and amino-acid usage is ahistorical; it is replicated independently in the three domains of living organisms, reinforcing the idea that genes and genomes at mutation/selection equilibrium reproduce a unique relationship between nucleic acid and protein composition. Thus, the model may be useful in predicting amino-acid or nucleotide sequences in poorly characterized taxa.