Why twenty amino acid residue types suffice(d) to support all living systems

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It is well known that proteins are built up from an alphabet of 20 different amino acid types. These suffice to enable the protein to fold into its operative form relevant to its required functional roles. For carrying out these allotted functions, there may in some cases be a need for post-translational modifications and it has been established that an additional three types of amino acid have at some point been recruited into this process. But it still remains the case that the 20 residue types referred to are the major building blocks in all terrestrial proteins, and probably "universally". Given this fact, it is surprising that no satisfactory answer has been given to the two questions: "why 20?" and "why just these 20?". Furthermore, a suggestion is made as to how these 20 map to the codon repertoire which in principle has the capacity to cater for 64 different residue types. Attempts are made in this paper to answer these questions by employing a combination of quantum chemical and chemoinformatic tools which are applied to the standard 20 amino acid types as well as 3 "non-standard" types found in nature, a set of fictitious but feasible analog structures designed to test the need for greater coverage of function space and the collection of candidate alternative structures found either on meteorites or in experiments designed to reconstruct pre-life scenarios.

Journal details

Journal PLOS ONE
Volume 13
Issue number 10
Pages e0204883
Available online
Publication date

Crick labs/facilities