Natural history and experimental evolution of the genetic code
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- Wiltschi, B. & Budisa, N. Appl Microbiol Biotechnol (2007) 74: 739. doi:10.1007/s00253-006-0823-6
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The standard genetic code is a set of rules that relates the 20 canonical amino acids in proteins to groups of three bases in the mRNA. It evolved from a more primitive form and the attempts to reconstruct its natural history are based on its present-day features. Genetic code engineering as a new research field was developed independently in a few laboratories during the last 15 years. The main intention is to re-program protein synthesis by expanding the coding capacities of the genetic code via re-assignment of specific codons to un-natural amino acids. This article focuses on the question as to which extent hypothetical scenarios that led to codon re-assignments during the evolution of the genetic code are relevant for its further evolution in the laboratory. Current attempts to engineer the genetic code are reviewed with reference to theoretical works on its natural history. Integration of the theoretical considerations into experimental concepts will bring us closer to designer cells with target-engineered genetic codes that should open not only tremendous possibilities for the biotechnology of the twenty-first century but will also provide a basis for the design of novel life forms.