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Amino acid fermentation at the origin of the genetic code

DOI: 10.1186/1745-6150-7-6

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The RNA world is an ancient evolutionary period characterised by a ribozyme-based metabolism. It is thought that the genetic code, or at least the precursors to the modern adapters (i.e. tRNAs, Figures 1 and 2), were established at that stage [[1], Ch. 5]. There are several theories that explain the current organisation of the code in terms of selective advantages, robustness against mutation, lateral gene transfer, biochemical and physical-chemical properties, and so forth. Most of these ideas build from the assumption that earlier, perhaps less accurate or complex codes existed, which evolved by selecting on different organisational principles, leading to the modern genetic code. Whilst most theories deal with the rearrangements to the code, only few directly address the question of how this code emerged. To some extent, the specific association between some amino acids and their codons can be explained by the formation of covalent complexes of dinucleotides and precursors to amino acids [2]. Other ideas that have received more attention, are the stereochemical arguments (the structural affinity between amino acids and coding triplets) [3-6]. Furthermore, it has been proposed that the role of amino acids in an RNA world was to improve the catalytic activity of ribozymes [7], a function that requires coding, because ribozymes needed to bind the amino acid as cofactors in a specific way.I propose that an alternative ancient function for the amino acids in an earlier RNA world was to harvest energy. I propose a scenario in which coding is required in order to carry out the catabolic degradation of amino acids, and which may have easily arisen from initial random assignments.My argument follows from three observations. First, amino acids are catabolised to obtain energy, and the metabolites are used as precursors for other biomolecules, a role often overlooked due to the prominent and central position of proteins in metabolism. This suggests that the amino acids could


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