In many organisms, the UGA stop codon is recoded to insert selenocysteine (Sec) into proteins. Sec incorporation in bacteria is directed by an mRNA element, known as the Sec-insertion sequence (SECIS), located downstream of the Sec codon. Unlike other aminoacyl-tRNAs, Sec-tRNASec is delivered to the ribosome by a dedicated elongation factor, SelB. We recently identified a series of tRNASec-like tRNA genes distributed across Bacteria that also encode a canonical tRNASec. These tRNAs contain sequence elements generally recognized by cysteinyl-tRNA synthetase (CysRS). While some of these tRNAs contain a UCA Sec anticodon, most have a GCA Cys anticodon. tRNASec with GCA anticodons are known to recode UGA codons. Here we investigate the clostridial Desulfotomaculum nigrificans tRNASec-like tRNACys, and show that this tRNA is acylated by CysRS, recognized by SelB, and capable of UGA recoding with Cys in Escherichia coli. We named this non-canonical group of tRNACys as 'tRNAReC' (Recoding with Cys). We performed a comprehensive survey of tRNAReC genes to establish their phylogenetic distribution, and found that, in a particular lineage of clostridial Pelotomaculum, the Cys identity elements of tRNAReC had mutated. This novel tRNA, which contains a UCA anticodon, is capable of Sec incorporation in E. coli, albeit with lower efficiency relative to Pelotomaculum tRNASec. We renamed this unusual tRNASec derived from tRNAReC as 'tRNAReU' (Recoding with Sec). Together, our results suggest that tRNAReC and tRNAReU may serve as safeguards in the production of selenoproteins and - to our knowledge - they provide the first example of programmed codon-anticodon mispairing in bacteria.
Keywords: Genetic code; bioinformatics; recoding; selenocysteine; tRNA.