Amino Acid Exchangeability and the Adaptive Code Hypothesis

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Since the genetic code first was determined, many have claimed that it is organized adaptively, so as to assign similar codons to similar amino acids. This claim has proved difficult to establish due to the absence of relevant comparative data on alternative primordial codes and of objective measures of amino acid exchangeability. Here we use a recently developed measure of exchangeability to evaluate a null hypothesis and two alternative hypotheses about the adaptiveness of the genetic code. The null hypothesis that there is no tendency for exchangeable amino acids to be assigned to similar codons can be excluded here as expected from earlier work. The first alternative hypothesis is that any such correlation between codon distance and amino acid distance is due to incremental mechanisms of code evolution, and not to adaptation to reduce deleterious effects of future mutations. More specifically, new codon assignments that occur by ambiguity reduction or by codon capture will tend to give rise to correlations, whether due to the condition of amino acid ambiguity, or to the condition of similarity between a new tRNA synthetase (or tRNA) and its parent. The second alternative hypothesis, the adaptive hypothesis, then may be defined as an excess relative to what may be expected given the incremental nature of evolution, reflecting true adaptation for robustness rather than an incidental effect. The results reported here indicate that most of the nonrandomness in the amino acids to codon assignments can be explained by incremental code evolution, with a small residue of orderliness that may reflect code adaptation.