tRNA's wobble decoding of the genome: 40 years of modification

J Mol Biol. 2007 Feb 9;366(1):1-13. doi: 10.1016/j.jmb.2006.11.046. Epub 2006 Nov 15.


The genetic code is degenerate, in that 20 amino acids are encoded by 61 triplet codes. In 1966, Francis Crick hypothesized that the cell's limited number of tRNAs decoded the genome by recognizing more than one codon. The ambiguity of that recognition resided in the third base-pair, giving rise to the Wobble Hypothesis. Post-transcriptional modifications at tRNA's wobble position 34, especially modifications of uridine 34, enable wobble to occur. The Modified Wobble Hypothesis proposed in 1991 that specific modifications of a tRNA wobble nucleoside shape the anticodon architecture in such a manner that interactions were restricted to the complementary base plus a single wobble pairing for amino acids with twofold degenerate codons. However, chemically different modifications at position 34 would expand the ability of a tRNA to read three or even four of the fourfold degenerate codons. One foundation of Crick's Wobble Hypothesis was that a near-constant geometry of canonical base-pairing be maintained in forming all three base-pairs between the tRNA anticodon and mRNA codon on the ribosome. In accepting an aminoacyl-tRNA, the ribosome requires maintenance of a specific geometry for the anticodon-codon base-pairing. However, it is the post-transcriptional modifications at tRNA wobble position 34 and purine 37, 3'-adjacent to the anticodon, that pre-structure the anticodon domain to ensure the correct codon binding. The modifications create both the architecture and the stability needed for decoding through restraints on anticodon stereochemistry and conformational space, and through selective hydrogen bonding. A physicochemical understanding of modified nucleoside contributions to the tRNA anticodon domain architecture and its decoding of the genome has advanced RNA world evolutionary theory, the principles of RNA chemistry, and the application of this knowledge to the introduction of new amino acids to proteins.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anticodon / chemistry*
  • Base Pairing
  • Base Sequence
  • Codon / chemistry
  • Codon / genetics
  • Genetic Code*
  • Genome*
  • Models, Genetic
  • Models, Molecular
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • RNA Processing, Post-Transcriptional
  • RNA, Transfer / chemistry*
  • RNA, Transfer / genetics
  • Ribosomes / chemistry*
  • Structure-Activity Relationship


  • Anticodon
  • Codon
  • RNA, Transfer