Nat Commun 9(1) , 1887 (May 14 2018)
The genetic code used in nuclear genes is almost universal, but here we report that it changed three times in parallel during the evolution of budding yeasts. All three changes were reassignments of the codon CUG, which is translated as serine (in 2 yeast clades), alanine (1 clade), or the ‘universal’ leucine (2 clades). The newly discovered Ser2 clade is in the final stages of a genetic code transition. Most species in this clade have genes for both a novel tRNA(Ser)(CAG) and an ancestral tRNA(Leu)(CAG) to read CUG, but only tRNA(Ser)(CAG) is used in standard growth conditions. The coexistence of these alloacceptor tRNA genes indicates that the genetic code transition occurred via an ambiguous translation phase. We propose that the three parallel reassignments of CUG were not driven by natural selection in favor of their effects on the proteome, but by selection to eliminate the ancestral tRNA(Leu)(CAG).