Synonymous codons are neutral at the protein level, therefore natural selection at the protein level should have no effect on their frequencies. Synonymous codons, however, differ in their capacity to reduce the effects of errors: after mutation, certain codons keep on coding for the same amino acid or for amino acids with similar properties, while other synonymous codons produce very different amino acids. Therefore, the impact of errors on a coding sequence (genetic robustness) can be measured by analysing its codon usage. I analyse the codon usage of sequenced nuclear and cytoplasmic genomes and I show that there is an extensive variation in genetic robustness at the DNA sequence level, both among genomes and among genes of the same genome. I also show theoretically that robustness can be adaptive, that is natural selection may lead to a preference for codons that reduce the impact of errors. If selection occurs only among the mutants of a codon (e.g. among the progeny before the adult phase), however, the codons that are more sensitive to the effects of mutations may increase in frequency because they manage to get rid more easily of deleterious mutations. I also suggest other possible explanations for the evolution of genetic robustness at the codon level.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics