Nearly 50 years ago, Francis Crick propounded the frozen accident scenario for the evolution of the genetic code along with the hypothesis that the early translation system consisted primarily of RNA. Under the frozen accident perspective, the code is universal among modern life forms because any change in codon assignment would be highly deleterious. The frozen accident can be considered the default theory of code evolution because it does not imply any specific interactions between amino acids and the cognate codons or anticodons, or any particular properties of the code. The subsequent 49 years of code studies have elucidated notable features of the standard code, such as high robustness to errors, but failed to develop a compelling explanation for codon assignments. In particular, stereochemical affinity between amino acids and the cognate codons or anticodons does not seem to account for the origin and evolution of the code. Here, I expand Crick’s hypothesis on RNA-only translation system by presenting evidence that this early translation already attained high fidelity that allowed protein evolution. I outline an experimentally testable scenario for the evolution of the code that combines a distinct version of the stereochemical hypothesis, in which amino acids are recognized via unique sites in the tertiary structure of proto-tRNAs, rather than by anticodons, expansion of the code via proto-tRNA duplication, and the frozen accident.
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