The Impact of Message Mutation on the Fitness of a Genetic Code
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The Standard Genetic Code is organized such that similar codons encode similar amino acids. One explanation suggested that the Standard Code is the result of natural selection to reduce the fitness ``load'' that derives from the mutation and mistranslation of protein-coding genes. We review the arguments against the mutational load-minimizing hypothesis and argue that they need to be reassessed. We review recent analyses of the organization of the Standard Code and conclude that under cautious interpretation they support the mutational load-minimizing hypothesis. We then present a deterministic asexual model with which we study the mode of selection for load minimization. In this model, individual fitness is determined by a protein phenotype resulting from the translation of a mutable set of protein-coding genes. We show that an equilibrium fitness may be associated with a population with the same genetic code and that genetic codes that assign similar codons to similar amino acids have a higher fitness. We also show that the number of mutant codons in each individual at equilibrium, which determines the strength of selection for load minimization, reflects a long-term evolutionary balance between mutations in messages and selection on proteins, rather than the number of mutations that occur in a single generation, as has been assumed by previous authors. We thereby establish that selection for mutational load minimization acts at the level of an individual in a single generation. We conclude with comments on the shortcomings and advantages of load minimization over other hypotheses for the origin of the Standard Code.
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