Synonymous codons provide redundancy in the genetic code that influences translation rates in many organisms, in which overall codon use is driven by selection for optimal codons. It is unresolved if or to what extent translational selection drives use of suboptimal codons or codon pairs. In Saccharomyces cerevisiae, 17 specific inhibitory codon pairs, each comprised of adjacent suboptimal codons, inhibit translation efficiency in a manner distinct from their constituent codons, and many are translated slowly in native genes. We show here that selection operates within Saccharomyces sensu stricto yeasts to conserve nine of these codon pairs at defined positions in genes. Conservation of these inhibitory codon pairs is significantly greater than expected, relative to conservation of their constituent codons, with seven pairs more highly conserved than any other synonymous pair. Conservation is strongly correlated with slow translation of the pairs. Conservation of suboptimal codon pairs extends to two related Candida species, fungi that diverged from Saccharomyces ∼270 million years ago, with an enrichment for codons decoded by I•A and U•G wobble in both Candida and Saccharomyces. Thus, conservation of inhibitory codon pairs strongly implies selection for slow translation at particular gene locations, executed by suboptimal codon pairs.
© The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Nucleic Acids Research.