An evolutionary perspective on synonymous codon usage in unicellular organisms

J Mol Evol. 1986;24(1-2):28-38. doi: 10.1007/BF02099948.


Observed patterns of synonymous codon usage are explained in terms of the joint effects of mutation, selection, and random drift. Examination of the codon usage in 165 Escherichia coli genes reveals a consistent trend of increasing bias with increasing gene expression level. Selection on codon usage appears to be unidirectional, so that the pattern seen in lowly expressed genes is best explained in terms of an absence of strong selection. A measure of directional synonymous-codon usage bias, the Codon Adaptation Index, has been developed. In enterobacteria, rates of synonymous substitution are seen to vary greatly among genes, and genes with a high codon bias evolve more slowly. A theoretical study shows that the patterns of extreme codon bias observed for some E. coli (and yeast) genes can be generated by rather small selective differences. The relative plausibilities of various theoretical models for explaining nonrandom codon usage are discussed.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Codon*
  • Escherichia coli / genetics*
  • Genes
  • Genes, Bacterial*
  • Genes, Regulator
  • RNA, Messenger*


  • Codon
  • RNA, Messenger