Selenocysteine: the 21st amino acid



Great excitement was elicited in the field of selenium biochemistry in 1986 by the parallel discoveries that the genes encoding the selenoproteins glutathione peroxidase and bacterial formate dehydrogenase each contain an in-frame TGA codon within their coding sequence. We now know that this codon directs the incorporation of selenium, in the form of selenocysteine, into these proteins. Working with the bacterial system has led to a rapid increase in our knowledge of selenocysteine biosynthesis and to the exciting discovery that this system can now be regarded as an expansion of the genetic code. The prerequisites for such a definition are co-translational insertion into the polypeptide chain and the occurrence of a tRNA molecule which carries selenocysteine. Both of these criteria are fulfilled and, moreover, tRNASec even has its own special translation factor which delivers it to the translating ribosome. It is the aim of this article to review the events leading to the elucidation of selenocysteine as being the 21st amino acid.