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Life 2015, 5(1), 467-505;

The Hypothesis that the Genetic Code Originated in Coupled Synthesis of Proteins and the Evolutionary Predecessors of Nucleic Acids in Primitive Cells

Department of Molecular Biology, University of Wyoming, Laramie, WY 82071, USA
Academic Editors: Pabulo H. Rampelotto, Hyman Hartman and Temple F. Smith
Received: 8 December 2014 / Accepted: 2 February 2015 / Published: 11 February 2015
(This article belongs to the Section Life Sciences)
Full-Text   |   PDF [1413 KB, uploaded 12 February 2015]   |  


Although analysis of the genetic code has allowed explanations for its evolution to be proposed, little evidence exists in biochemistry and molecular biology to offer an explanation for the origin of the genetic code. In particular, two features of biology make the origin of the genetic code difficult to understand. First, nucleic acids are highly complicated polymers requiring numerous enzymes for biosynthesis. Secondly, proteins have a simple backbone with a set of 20 different amino acid side chains synthesized by a highly complicated ribosomal process in which mRNA sequences are read in triplets. Apparently, both nucleic acid and protein syntheses have extensive evolutionary histories. Supporting these processes is a complex metabolism and at the hub of metabolism are the carboxylic acid cycles. This paper advances the hypothesis that the earliest predecessor of the nucleic acids was a β-linked polyester made from malic acid, a highly conserved metabolite in the carboxylic acid cycles. In the β-linked polyester, the side chains are carboxylic acid groups capable of forming interstrand double hydrogen bonds. Evolution of the nucleic acids involved changes to the backbone and side chain of poly(β-d-malic acid). Conversion of the side chain carboxylic acid into a carboxamide or a longer side chain bearing a carboxamide group, allowed information polymers to form amide pairs between polyester chains. Aminoacylation of the hydroxyl groups of malic acid and its derivatives with simple amino acids such as glycine and alanine allowed coupling of polyester synthesis and protein synthesis. Use of polypeptides containing glycine and l-alanine for activation of two different monomers with either glycine or l-alanine allowed simple coded autocatalytic synthesis of polyesters and polypeptides and established the first genetic code. A primitive cell capable of supporting electron transport, thioester synthesis, reduction reactions, and synthesis of polyesters and polypeptides is proposed. The cell consists of an iron-sulfide particle enclosed by tholin, a heterogeneous organic material that is produced by Miller-Urey type experiments that simulate conditions on the early Earth. As the synthesis of nucleic acids evolved from β-linked polyesters, the singlet coding system for replication evolved into a four nucleotide/four amino acid process (AMP = aspartic acid, GMP = glycine, UMP = valine, CMP = alanine) and then into the triplet ribosomal process that permitted multiple copies of protein to be synthesized independent of replication. This hypothesis reconciles the “genetics first” and “metabolism first” approaches to the origin of life and explains why there are four bases in the genetic alphabet. View Full-Text
Keywords: origin genetic code; primitive cell; coupled protein nucleic acid synthesis origin genetic code; primitive cell; coupled protein nucleic acid synthesis

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Francis, B.R. The Hypothesis that the Genetic Code Originated in Coupled Synthesis of Proteins and the Evolutionary Predecessors of Nucleic Acids in Primitive Cells. Life 2015, 5, 467-505.

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