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28.5: Translation of RNA - Protein Biosynthesis

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    After completing this section, you should be able to describe, very briefly, the roles of messenger RNA and transfer RNA in the biosynthesis of proteins.

    Key Terms

    Make certain that you can define, and use in context, the key terms below.

    • anticodon
    • codon
    • translation
    Study Notes

    As in the preceding section, you should not be too concerned about trying to memorize details. The objective requires you to have a general understanding of the roles played by mRNA and tRNA in the biosynthesis of proteins, and that you be able to describe this process.

    After transcription, which takes place in the nucleus, the mRNA passes into the cytoplasm, carrying the genetic message from DNA to the ribosomes, the sites of protein synthesis. Ribosomes are cellular substructures where proteins are synthesized. They contain about 65% rRNA and 35% protein, held together by numerous noncovalent interactions, such as hydrogen bonding, in an overall structure consisting of two globular particles of unequal size. We turn now to the question of how the sequence of nucleotides in a molecule of ribonucleic acid (RNA) is translated into an amino acid sequence.

    How can a molecule containing just 4 different nucleotides specify the sequence of the 20 amino acids that occur in proteins? If each nucleotide coded for 1 amino acid, then obviously the nucleic acids could code for only 4 amino acids. What if amino acids were coded for by groups of 2 nucleotides? There are 42, or 16, different combinations of 2 nucleotides (AA, AU, AC, AG, UU, and so on). Such a code is more extensive but still not adequate to code for 20 amino acids. However, if the nucleotides are arranged in groups of 3, the number of different possible combinations is 43, or 64. Here we have a code that is extensive enough to direct the synthesis of the primary structure of a protein molecule.

    The genetic code can therefore be described as the identification of each group of three nucleotides and its particular amino acid. The sequence of these triplet groups in the mRNA dictates the sequence of the amino acids in the protein. Each individual three-nucleotide coding unit, as we have seen, is called a codon.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): The Genetic Code

    Early experimenters were faced with the task of determining which of the 64 possible codons stood for each of the 20 amino acids. The cracking of the genetic code was the joint accomplishment of several well-known geneticists—notably Har Khorana, Marshall Nirenberg, Philip Leder, and Severo Ochoa—from 1961 to 1964. The genetic dictionary they compiled, summarized in Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\), shows that 61 codons code for amino acids, and 3 codons serve as signals for the termination of polypeptide synthesis (much like the period at the end of a sentence). Notice that only methionine (AUG) and tryptophan (UGG) have single codons. All other amino acids have two or more codons.

    Protein synthesis is accomplished by orderly interactions between mRNA and the other ribonucleic acids (transfer RNA [tRNA] and ribosomal RNA [rRNA]), the ribosome, and more than 100 enzymes. The mRNA formed in the nucleus during transcription is transported across the nuclear membrane into the cytoplasm to the ribosomes—carrying with it the genetic instructions. The process in which the information encoded in the mRNA is used to direct the sequencing of amino acids and thus ultimately to synthesize a protein is referred to as translation.

    Before an amino acid can be incorporated into a polypeptide chain, it must be attached to its unique tRNA. The carboxylic acid group of the amino acid forms an ester linkage with with the 3' hydroxyl group on the riboses bonded at the 3' end of the tRNA. This crucial process requires an enzyme known as aminoacyl-tRNA synthetase (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)). There is a specific aminoacyl-tRNA synthetase for each amino acid. This high degree of specificity is vital to the incorporation of the correct amino acid into a protein. After the amino acid molecule has been bound to its tRNA carrier, protein synthesis can take place.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\) Binding of an Amino Acid to Its tRNA

    The two-dimensional structure of a tRNA molecule is reminiscent of a cloverleaf. At one end of the tRNA molecule is the acceptor stem, where the amino acid is attached. The tRNA Molecule has three distinctive loops. One of these is called the anticodon loop which holds a sequence of three nucleotides called the anticodon. Each anticodon corresponds to the amino acid each is tRNA molecule is specifically designed to carry. For example, the amino acid lysine has the codon AAG, so the anticodon is UUC. Therefore, lysine would be carried by a tRNA molecule with the anticodon UUC. Each of the 20 amino acids found in proteins has at least one corresponding kind of tRNA, and most amino acids have more than one.

    Transfer RNA (a) In the two-dimensional structure of a yeast tR.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Transfer RNA (a) In the two-dimensional structure of a yeast tRNA molecule for phenylalanine, the amino acid binds to the acceptor stem located at the 3′ end of the tRNA primary sequence. (The nucleotides that are not specifically identified here are slightly altered analogs of the four common ribonucleotides A, U, C, and G.) (b) In the three-dimensional structure of yeast phenylalanine tRNA, note that the anticodon loop is at the bottom and the acceptor stem is at the top right. (c) This shows a space-filling model of the tRNA.

    During protein synthesis the codon on the mRNA determines which kind of tRNA will add its amino acid to the growing chain. Wherever the codon AAG appears in mRNA, a UUC anticodon on a tRNA temporarily binds to the codon ect. As each different tRNA brings an amino acid into position an enzyme adds it to the growing protein chain. The protein is released from the ribosome once it is completed. Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\) depicts a schematic stepwise representation of this all-important process.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): The Elongation Steps in Protein Synthesis
    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    What are the roles of mRNA and tRNA in protein synthesis?


    mRNA provides the code that determines the order of amino acids in the protein; tRNA transports the amino acids to the ribosome to incorporate into the growing protein chain.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    A portion of an mRNA molecule has the sequence 5′-AUGCCACGAGUUGAC-3′. What amino acid sequence does this code for?


    Use Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\) to determine what amino acid each set of three nucleotides (codon) codes for. Remember that the sequence is read starting from the 5′ end and that a protein is synthesized starting with the N-terminal amino acid. The sequence 5′-AUGCCACGAGUUGAC-3′ codes for met-pro-arg-val-asp.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    Write the anticodon on tRNA that would pair with each mRNA codon.

    1. 5′-UUU-3′
    2. 5′-CAU-3′
    3. 5′-AGC-3′
    4. 5′-CCG-3′
    1. 3′-AAA-5′
    2. 3′-GUA-5′
    3. 3′-UCG-5′
    4. 3′-GGC-5′
    Exercise \(\PageIndex{4}\)

    The peptide hormone oxytocin contains 9 amino acid units. What is the minimum number of nucleotides needed to code for this peptide?


    27 nucleotides (3 nucleotides/codon)

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{5}\)

    Determine the amino acid sequence produced from this mRNA sequence: 5′-AUGAGCGACUUUGCGGGAUUA-3′.



    28.5: Translation of RNA - Protein Biosynthesis is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Steven Farmer & Dietmar Kennepohl.