Recent evidence for evolution of the genetic code

Microbiol Rev. 1992 Mar;56(1):229-64. doi: 10.1128/mr.56.1.229-264.1992.


The genetic code, formerly thought to be frozen, is now known to be in a state of evolution. This was first shown in 1979 by Barrell et al. (G. Barrell, A. T. Bankier, and J. Drouin, Nature [London] 282:189-194, 1979), who found that the universal codons AUA (isoleucine) and UGA (stop) coded for methionine and tryptophan, respectively, in human mitochondria. Subsequent studies have shown that UGA codes for tryptophan in Mycoplasma spp. and in all nonplant mitochondria that have been examined. Universal stop codons UAA and UAG code for glutamine in ciliated protozoa (except Euplotes octacarinatus) and in a green alga, Acetabularia. E. octacarinatus uses UAA for stop and UGA for cysteine. Candida species, which are yeasts, use CUG (leucine) for serine. Other departures from the universal code, all in nonplant mitochondria, are CUN (leucine) for threonine (in yeasts), AAA (lysine) for asparagine (in platyhelminths and echinoderms), UAA (stop) for tyrosine (in planaria), and AGR (arginine) for serine (in several animal orders) and for stop (in vertebrates). We propose that the changes are typically preceded by loss of a codon from all coding sequences in an organism or organelle, often as a result of directional mutation pressure, accompanied by loss of the tRNA that translates the codon. The codon reappears later by conversion of another codon and emergence of a tRNA that translates the reappeared codon with a different assignment. Changes in release factors also contribute to these revised assignments. We also discuss the use of UGA (stop) as a selenocysteine codon and the early history of the code.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Base Sequence
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Cell Nucleus / chemistry
  • Codon / classification*
  • Genetic Code*
  • Mitochondria / chemistry
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Nucleic Acid Conformation


  • Codon