Biology and Philosophy

, Volume 19, Issue 2, pp 205–222

The arbitrariness of the genetic code

  • Ulrich E. Stegmann
Article

Abstract

The genetic code has been regarded as arbitrary in the sense that the codon-amino acid assignments could be different than they actually are. This general idea has been spelled out differently by previous, often rather implicit accounts of arbitrariness. They have drawn on the frozen accident theory, on evolutionary contingency, on alternative causal pathways, and on the absence of direct stereochemical interactions between codons and amino acids. It has also been suggested that the arbitrariness of the genetic code justifies attributing semantic information to macromolecules, notably to DNA. I argue that these accounts of arbitrariness are unsatisfactory. I propose that the code is arbitrary in the sense of Jacques Monod's concept of chemical arbitrariness: the genetic code is arbitrary in that any codon requires certain chemical and structural properties to specify a particular amino acid, but these properties are not required in virtue of a principle of chemistry. This notion of arbitrariness is compatible with several recent hypotheses about code evolution. I maintain that the code's chemical arbitrariness is neither sufficient nor necessary for attributing semantic information to nucleic acids.

Allosteric effectors Arbitrariness Competitive inhibition Complementarity Evolutionary contingency Frozen accident theory Genetic code Genetic information Principles of chemistry 

Preview

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

References

  1. Beatty J.: 1995, 'The Evolutionary Contingency Thesis', in Wolters G. and Lennox J.G. (eds.), Concepts, Theories and Rationality in the Biological Sciences, University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, pp. 45–81.Google Scholar
  2. Christie M. and Christie J.R.: 2000, ' “Laws” and “Theories” in Chemistry Do Not Obey the Rules', in Bhushan N. and Rosenfeld S. (eds.), Of Minds and Molecules: New Philosophical Perspectives on Chemistry, Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 34–50.Google Scholar
  3. Crick F.H.: 1968, 'The Origin of the Genetic Code', Journal of Molecular Biology 38, 367–379.Google Scholar
  4. Crick F.H.: 1970, 'Central Dogma of Molecular Biology', Nature 227, 561–563.Google Scholar
  5. Ellington A.D., Khrapov M. and Shaw C.A.: 2000, 'The Scene of a Frozen Accident', RNA-A Publication of the RNA Society 6 (4), 485–498.Google Scholar
  6. Godfrey-Smith P.: 1999, 'Genes and Codes: Lessons from the Philosophy of Mind?', in Hardcastle V. (ed.), Biology Meets Psychology: Constraints, Conjectures, Connections, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, pp. 305–311.Google Scholar
  7. Godfrey-Smith P.: 2000a, 'Information, Arbitrariness, and Selection: Comments on Maynard Smith', Philosophy of Science 67, 202–207.Google Scholar
  8. Godfrey-Smith P.: 2000b, 'On the Theoretical Role of “Genetic Coding” ', Philosophy of Science 67, 26–44.Google Scholar
  9. Henikoff S.: 2002, 'Editorial-Beyond the Central Dogma', Bioinformatics 18 (2), 223–225.Google Scholar
  10. Illangasekare M. and Yarus M.: 2002, 'Phenylalanine-binding RNAs and Genetic Code Evolution', Journal of Molecular Evolution 54 (3), 298–311.Google Scholar
  11. Jacob F.: 1974, The Logic of Living Systems-A History of Heredity, Allen Lane, London. Transl. of Jacob 1970, La Logique du vivant; une histoire de l'hÉrÉditÉ. Éditions Gallimard, Paris.Google Scholar
  12. Jacob F. and Monod J.: 1963, 'Genetic Repression, Allosteric Inhibition, and Cellular Differentiation', in Locke M. (eds.), Cytodifferentiation and Macromolecular Synthesis, Academic Press, New York, pp. 30–64.Google Scholar
  13. Keyes M.E.: 1999, 'The Prion Challenge to the “Central Dogma” of Molecular Biology, 1965-1991. Part I: Prelude to Prions', Studies in the History and Philosophy of Biology and Biomedical Sciences 30 (1), 1–19.Google Scholar
  14. Knight R.D., Freeland S.J. and Landweber L.F.: 1999, 'Selection, History and Chemistry: The Three Faces of the Genetic Code', Trends in Biochemical Science 24, 241–247.Google Scholar
  15. Knight R.D., Freeland S.J. and Landweber L.F.: 2001, 'Rewiring the Keyboard: Evolvability of the Genetic Code', Nature Reviews Genetics 2, 49–58.Google Scholar
  16. Maynard Smith J.: 2000a, 'The Concept of Information in Biology', Philosophy of Science 67, 177–194.Google Scholar
  17. Maynard Smith J.: 2000b, 'Reply to Commentaries', Philosophy of Science 67, 214–218.Google Scholar
  18. Maynard Smith J. and SzathmÁry E.: 1995, The Major Transitions in Evolution, Oxford University Press, Oxford.Google Scholar
  19. Monod J.: 1971, Chance and Necessity, Collins, London. Transl. of Monod, 1970, Le hasard et la necessitÉ. Édition du Seuil, Paris.Google Scholar
  20. Monod J., Changeux J.-P. and Jacob F.: 1963, 'Allosteric Proteins and Cellular Control Systems', Journal of Molecular Biology 6, 306–329.Google Scholar
  21. Monod J. and Jacob F.: 1961, 'General Conclusions: Teleonomic Mechanisms in Cellular Metabolism, Growth, and Differentiation', Cold Spring Harbour Symposia on Quantitative Biology 26, 389–401.Google Scholar
  22. Nelson D.L. and Cox M.M.: 2000, Lehninger Principles of Biochemistry, 3rd. ed., Worth, New York.Google Scholar
  23. Sarkar S.: 2000, 'Information in Genetics and Developmental Biology: Comments on Maynard Smith', Philosophy of Science 67, 208–213.Google Scholar
  24. Seligmann H. and Amzallag G.N.: 2002, 'Chemical Interactions between Amino Acid and RNA: Multiplicity of the Levels of Specificity Explains Origin of the Genetic Code', Naturwissenschaften 89 (12), 542–551.Google Scholar
  25. Sterelny K.: 2000, 'The “Genetic Program” Program: A Commentary on Maynard Smith on Information in Biology', Philosophy of Science 67, 195–201.Google Scholar
  26. Thieffry D. and Sarkar S.: 1998, 'Forty Years under the Central Dogma', Trends in Biochemical Science 23, 312–316.Google Scholar
  27. Woese C.R.: 1967, The Genetic Code: The Molecular Basis for Genetic Expression, Harper and Row, New York.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ulrich E. Stegmann
    • 1
  1. 1.Philosophy DepartmentUniversity of BielefeldGermany
  2. 2.Philosophy DepartmentKing's College LondonStrand, LondonUK

Personalised recommendations