The genetic code refers to the DNA alphabet (A, T, C, G), the RNA alphabet (A, U, C, G), and the polypeptide alphabet (20 amino acids). The Central Dogma describes the flow of genetic information in the cell from genes to mRNA to proteins. Genes are used to make mRNA by the process of transcription; mRNA is used to synthesize proteins by the process of translation. The genetic code is degenerate because 64 triplet codons in mRNA specify only 20 amino acids and three nonsense codons. Almost every species on the planet uses the same genetic code.
In prokaryotes, mRNA synthesis is initiated at a promoter sequence on the DNA template comprising two consensus sequences that recruit RNA polymerase. The prokaryotic polymerase consists of a core enzyme of four protein subunits and a σ protein that assists only with initiation. Elongation synthesizes mRNA in the 5' to 3' direction at a rate of 40 nucleotides per second. Termination liberates the mRNA and occurs either by rho protein interaction or by the formation of an mRNA hairpin.
Transcription in eukaryotes involves one of three types of polymerases, depending on the gene being transcribed. RNA polymerase II transcribes all of the protein-coding genes, whereas RNA polymerase I transcribes rRNA genes, and RNA polymerase III transcribes rRNA, tRNA, and small nuclear RNA genes. The initiation of transcription in eukaryotes involves the binding of several transcription factors to complex promoter sequences that are usually located upstream of the gene being copied. The mRNA is synthesized in the 5' to 3' direction, and the FACT complex moves and reassembles nucleosomes as the polymerase passes by. Whereas RNA polymerases I and III terminate transcription by protein- or RNA hairpin-dependent methods, RNA polymerase II transcribes for 1,000 or more nucleotides beyond the gene template and cleaves the excess during pre-mRNA processing.
Eukaryotic pre-mRNAs are modified with a 5' methylguanosine cap and a poly-A tail. These structures protect the mature mRNA from degradation and help export it from the nucleus. Pre-mRNAs also undergo splicing, in which introns are removed and exons are reconnected with single-nucleotide accuracy. Only finished mRNAs that have undergone 5' capping, 3' polyadenylation, and intron splicing are exported from the nucleus to the cytoplasm. Pre-rRNAs and pre-tRNAs may be processed by intramolecular cleavage, splicing, methylation, and chemical conversion of nucleotides. Rarely, RNA editing is also performed to insert missing bases after an mRNA has been synthesized.
The players in translation include the mRNA template, ribosomes, tRNAs, and various enzymatic factors. The small ribosomal subunit forms on the mRNA template either at the Shine-Dalgarno sequence (prokaryotes) or the 5' cap (eukaryotes). Translation begins at the initiating AUG on the mRNA, specifying methionine. The formation of peptide bonds occurs between sequential amino acids specified by the mRNA template according to the genetic code. Charged tRNAs enter the ribosomal A site, and their amino acid bonds with the amino acid at the P site. The entire mRNA is translated in three-nucleotide “steps” of the ribosome. When a nonsense codon is encountered, a release factor binds and dissociates the components and frees the new protein. Folding of the protein occurs during and after translation.