Frozen, but no accident – why the 20 standard amino acids were selected
The 20 standard amino acids encoded by the Genetic Code were adopted during the RNA World, around 4 billion years ago. This amino acid set could be regarded as a frozen accident, implying that other possible structures could equally well have been chosen to use in proteins. Amino acids were not primarily selected for their ability to support catalysis, as the RNA World already had highly effective cofactors to perform reactions, such as oxidation, reduction and transfer of small molecules. Rather, they were selected to enable the formation of soluble structures with close-packed cores, allowing the presence of ordered binding pockets. Factors to take into account when assessing why a particular amino acid might be used include its component atoms, functional groups, biosynthetic cost, use in a protein core or on the surface, solubility and stability. Applying these criteria to the 20 standard amino acids, and considering some other simple alternatives that are not used, we find that there are excellent reasons for the selection of every amino acid. Rather than being a frozen accident, the set of amino acids selected appears to be near ideal.
The set of 20 standard amino acids in proteins could be regarded as a frozen accident. After considering their properties and plausible alternatives that are not used, however, I find that there are excellent reasons for the selection of every amino acid.