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The Rhythm of Ribosomes

February 13, 2013

We all know that some people march to the beat of a different drummer. But now we’re finding out that mRNAs also have their own particular rhythms as they move along the ribosome.

Marching Band

For mRNAs, codon usage sets the beat.

It’s long been known that some codons just work better than others. They are translated faster and more accurately mostly because they interact more strongly with their tRNAs and because there are more of their specific tRNAs around. So why hasn’t evolution gotten rid of all the “slow” codons? With only optimal codons, translation could move at a marching beat all the time.

One idea has been that a few pauses every now and then are a good thing. For example, maybe slowing down translation at the end of a stretch coding for a discrete protein domain gives that domain time to fold properly. This would make it less likely for the polypeptide chain to end up tangled, or misfolded. Great thought, but even when researchers looked in multiple organisms, they couldn’t find a consistent correlation between codons used and protein structure. Until now, that is.

In a recent study published in Nature Structural and Molecular Biology, Pechmann and Frydman took a novel approach to this question. They derived a new formula to measure codon optimality. Using it they found that codon usage was highly conserved between even distantly related species, and that this conservation reflected the domain structure of the particular protein a ribosome was translating.

First, the authors came up with a more accurate way of classifying codons as optimal or non-optimal. They took advantage of the huge amount of data available for S. cerevisiae and included a lot more of it in the calculation, such as the abundance of hundreds of mRNAs and their level of ribosome association. They also took into account competition between tRNAs based on supply and demand, something that the previous studies had not done.

Once they developed this new translational efficiency scale, they applied it to ten other yeast species – from closely related budding yeasts all the way out to the evolutionarily distant Schizosaccharomyces pombe. The authors found that positions of optimal and non-optimal codons were indeed highly conserved across the yeasts. And codon optimality was highly correlated with protein structure.

One of the better examples of this is alpha helices. These protein domains form while still inside the ribosomal tunnel. The authors found that the mRNA regions coding alpha helices use a characteristic pattern of optimal and non-optimal codons to encode the first turn of the helix. They theorize that this sets the rhythm for folding the rest of the helix. Other structural elements are coded by distinct codon signatures too.

This isn’t just interesting basic research. It has some far-reaching practical implications too.

When using yeast to make some sort of industrial product, the thought has been to use as many optimal codons as possible. This has not always worked out, and now we may know why. A gene that tailors the codon usage to the rhythm of the protein structure is probably the best way to make a lot of correctly folded protein.

And the factory isn’t the only place where this kind of information will come in handy. Protein misfolding is the known or suspected culprit in a whole slew of human neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, ALS, Huntington’s chorea, and Parkinson’s disease. A better understanding of its causes might give us insights into managing those diseases.


Who knew in 1971 that translation actually is a rhythmic dance?

by Maria Costanzo, Ph.D., Senior Biocurator, SGD