Variation in Release Factor Abundance Is Not Needed to Explain Trends in Bacterial Stop Codon Usage

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In bacteria stop codons are recognized by one of two class I release factors (RF1) recognizing TAG, RF2 recognizing TGA, and TAA being recognized by both. Variation across bacteria in the relative abundance of RF1 and RF2 is thus hypothesized to select for different TGA/TAG usage. This has been supported by correlations between TAG:TGA ratios and RF1:RF2 ratios across multiple bacterial species, potentially also explaining why TAG usage is approximately constant despite extensive variation in GC content. It is, however, possible that stop codon trends are determined by other forces and that RF ratios adapt to stop codon usage, rather than vice versa. Here, we determine which direction of the causal arrow is the more parsimonious. Our results support the notion that RF1/RF2 ratios become adapted to stop codon usage as the same trends, notably the anomalous TAG behavior, are seen in contexts where RF1:RF2 ratios cannot be, or are unlikely to be, causative, that is, at 3′untranslated sites never used for translation termination, in intragenomic analyses, and across archaeal species (that possess only one RF1). We conclude that specifics of RF biology are unlikely to fully explain TGA/TAG relative usage. We discuss why the causal relationships for the evolution of synonymous stop codon usage might be different from those affecting synonymous sense codon usage, noting that transitions between TGA and TAG require two-point mutations one of which is likely to be deleterious.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbermsab326
JournalMolecular Biology and Evolution
Issue number1
Early online date9 Nov 2021
Publication statusPublished - 31 Jan 2022


  • molecular evolution
  • release factor
  • stop codons
  • translation termination

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Molecular Biology
  • Genetics


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