Characteristics of the genetic code

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The genetic code consists of 64 triplets of nucleotides. These triplets are called codons.With three exceptions, each codon encodes for one of the 20 amino acids used in the synthesis of proteins. That produces some redundancy in the code: most of the amino acids being encoded by more than one codon.

The genetic code is the set of rules by which information encoded in genetic material (DNA or RNA sequences) is translated into proteins (amino acid sequences) by living cells.

The genetic code, once thought to be identical in all forms of life, has been found to diverge slightly in certain organisms and in the mitochondria of some eukaryotes. Nevertheless, these differences are rare, and the genetic code is identical in almost all species, with the same codons specifying the same amino acids.

The Genetic Code Dictionary

Characteristics of the genetic code

Triplet nature

A triplet code could make a genetic code for 64 different combinations (4 X 4 X 4) genetic code and provide plenty of information in the DNA molecule to specify the placement of all 20 amino acids. When experiments were performed to crack the genetic code it was found to be a code that was triplet. These three letter codes of nucleotides (AUG, AAA, etc.) are called codons.


The code is degenerate which means that the same amino acid is coded by more than one base triplet. For example, the three amino acids arginine, alanine and leucine each have six synonymous codons.


The genetic code is nonoverlapping, i.e.,the adjacent codons do not overlap. A nonoverlapping code means that the same letter is not used for two different codons. In other words, no single base can take part in the formation of more than one codon.


There is no signal to indicate the end of one codon and the beginning of the next. The genetic code is commaless (or comma-free).


A particular codon will always code for the same amino acid. While the same amino acid can be coded by more than one codon (the code is degenerate), the same codon shall not code for two or more different amino acids (non-ambiguous).


Although the code is based on work conducted on the bacterium Escherichia coli but it is valid for other organisms. This important characteristic of the genetic code is called its universality. It means that the same sequences of 3 bases encode the same amino acids in all life forms from simple microorganisms to complex, multicelled organisms such as human beings.


The genetic code has polarity, that is, the code is always read in a fixed direction, i.e., in the 5′ → 3′ direction.

Chain Initiation Codons

The triplets AUG and GUG play double roles in E. coli. When they occur in between the two ends of a cistron (intermediate position), they code for the amino acids methionine and valine, respectively in an intermediate position in the protein molecule.

Chain Termination Codons

The 3 triplets UAA, UAG, UGA do not code for any amino acid. They were originally described as non-sense codons, as against the remaining 61 codons, which are termed as sense codons