In a paper published in the Journal of Molecular Evolution this week, researchers from the University of Bath describe a new theory which they believe could solve a puzzle that has baffled scientists since they first deciphered the language of DNA almost 40 years ago.
In 1968, Marshall Nirenberg, Har Gobind Khorana and Robert Holley received a Nobel Prize for working out how proteins are produced from the genetic code. They discovered that three letter 'words' - known as codons - are read from the DNA code and then translated into one of 20 amino acids. These amino acids are then strung together in the order dictated by the DNA code and folded into complex shapes to form a specific protein.
As the DNA 'alphabet' contains four letters - called bases - there are as many as 64 three-letter words available in the DNA dictionary. This is because it is mathematically possible to produce 64 three-letter words from any combination of four letters.
But why there should be 64 words in the DNA dictionary which translate into just 20 amino acids, and why a process that is more complex than it needs to be should have evolved in the first place, has puzzled scientists for the last 40 years.
Dozens of scientists have suggested theories to solve the puzzle, but these have been quickly discounted or failed to explain some of the other quirks in protein synthesis.
"Why there are so many more codons than amino acids has puzzled scientists ever since it was discovered how the genetic code works," said Dr Jean van den Elsen from the Department of Biology and Biochemistry.
"It meant the genetic code did not have the mathematical brilliance you would expect from something so fundamental to life on earth."