, Volume 13, Issue 3, pp 245-252

Degeneracy of the information contained in amino acid sequences: Evidence from overlaid genes

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The observed gene overlays in the viruses ФX174 and SV40 show a surprising economy of information storage; two different amino acid sequences are read in different frames from the same stretch of DNA. This phenomenon appears contradictory in that the information in the two overlaid amino acid sequences is strongly interdependent, yet each of the two proteins has evolved to its own well-defined function. The contradiction can be resolved by assuming sufficiently large degeneracy of the information contents of amino acid sequences with respect to function. Such a degeneracy is familiar from homologous proteins where a given biological function is implemented by many different amino acid sequences. It is shown that the very existence of viral overlays allows to derive a lower limit for the magnitude of this degeneracy: The degeneracy is equal to, or greater than fourfold; on the average, at each position of the chain a choice of 1 out of 5 or less amino acids, and not a choice of 1 out of 20 is necessary for constructing a protein with a specified function. In addition, the strong dependence of overlay probabilities on chain length allows the definition of a maximal length of overlays; in bacterial viruses overlay regions should be shorter than about 150 residues.