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Keywords:

  • genetic code;
  • RNA;
  • selenocysteine;
  • sense codon recoding;
  • synthetic biology

Abstract

Selenocysteine (Sec) is naturally incorporated into proteins by recoding the stop codon UGA. Sec is not hardwired to UGA, as the Sec insertion machinery was found to be able to site-specifically incorporate Sec directed by 58 of the 64 codons. For 15 sense codons, complete conversion of the codon meaning from canonical amino acid (AA) to Sec was observed along with a tenfold increase in selenoprotein yield compared to Sec insertion at the three stop codons. This high-fidelity sense-codon recoding mechanism was demonstrated for Escherichia coli formate dehydrogenase and recombinant human thioredoxin reductase and confirmed by independent biochemical and biophysical methods. Although Sec insertion at UGA is known to compete against protein termination, it is surprising that the Sec machinery has the ability to outcompete abundant aminoacyl-tRNAs in decoding sense codons. The findings have implications for the process of translation and the information storage capacity of the biological cell.