Probing the Limits of Genetic Recoding in Essential Genes

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Science  18 Oct 2013:
Vol. 342, Issue 6156, pp. 361-363
DOI: 10.1126/science.1241460

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Changing the Code

Easily and efficiently expanding the genetic code could provide tools to genome engineers with broad applications in medicine, energy, agriculture, and environmental safety. Lajoie et al. (p. 357) replaced all known UAG stop codons with synonymous UAA stop codons in Escherichia coli MG1655, as well as release factor 1 (RF1; terminates translation at UAG), thereby eliminating natural UAG translation function without impairing fitness. This made it possible to reassign UAG as a dedicated codon to genetically encode nonstandard amino acids while avoiding deleterious incorporation at native UAG positions. The engineered E. coli incorporated nonstandard amino acids into its proteins and showed enhanced resistance to bacteriophage T7. In a second paper, Lajoie et al. (p. 361) demonstrated the recoding of 13 codons in 42 highly expressed essential genes in E. coli. Codon usage was malleable, but synonymous codons occasionally were nonequivalent in unpredictable ways.


Engineering radically altered genetic codes will allow for genomically recoded organisms that have expanded chemical capabilities and are isolated from nature. We have previously reassigned the translation function of the UAG stop codon; however, reassigning sense codons poses a greater challenge because such codons are more prevalent, and their usage regulates gene expression in ways that are difficult to predict. To assess the feasibility of radically altering the genetic code, we selected a panel of 42 highly expressed essential genes for modification. Across 80 Escherichia coli strains, we removed all instances of 13 rare codons from these genes and attempted to shuffle all remaining codons. Our results suggest that the genome-wide removal of 13 codons is feasible; however, several genome design constraints were apparent, underscoring the importance of a strategy that rapidly prototypes and tests many designs in small pieces.

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