A possible molecular metric for biological evolvability

J Biosci. 2012 Jul;37(3):573-7. doi: 10.1007/s12038-012-9210-x.


Proteins manifest themselves as phenotypic traits, retained or lost in living systems via evolutionary pressures. Simply put, survival is essentially the ability of a living system to synthesize a functional protein that allows for a response to environmental perturbations (adaptation). Loss of functional proteins leads to extinction. Currently there are no universally applicable quantitative metrics at the molecular level for either measuring 'evolvability' of life or for assessing the conditions under which a living system would go extinct and why. In this work, we show emergence of the first such metric by utilizing the recently discovered stoichiometric margin of life for all known naturally occurring (and functional) proteins. The constraint of having well-defined stoichiometries of the 20 amino acids in naturally occurring protein sequences requires utilization of the full scope of degeneracy in the genetic code, i.e. usage of all codons coding for an amino acid, by only 11 of the 20 amino acids. This shows that the non-availability of individual codons for these 11 amino acids would disturb the fine stoichiometric balance resulting in non-functional proteins and hence extinction. Remarkably, these amino acids are found in close proximity of any given amino acid in the backbones of thousands of known crystal structures of folded proteins. On the other hand, stoichiometry of the remaining 9 amino acids, found to be farther/distal from any given amino acid in backbones of folded proteins, is maintained independent of the number of codons available to synthesize them, thereby providing some robustness and hence survivability.

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Amino Acids / chemistry
  • Amino Acids / genetics
  • Codon
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Genetic Code
  • Models, Genetic*
  • Mutation
  • Proteins / chemistry
  • Proteins / genetics*


  • Amino Acids
  • Codon
  • Proteins