Edexcel International A Level Biology

Revision Notes

2.11 The Nature of the Genetic Code

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The Nature of the Genetic Code

The triplet code

  • The sequence of DNA nucleotide bases found within a gene is determined by a triplet (three-letter) code
  • Each sequence of three bases (i.e. each triplet of bases) in a gene codes for one amino acid
  • These triplets codes for different amino acids – there are 20 different amino acids that cells use to make up different proteins
  • For example:
    • CAG codes for the amino acid valine
    • TTC codes for the amino acid lysine
    • GAC codes for the amino acid leucine
    • CCG codes for the amino acid glycine
  • Some of these triplets of bases code for start (AUG – methionine) and stop signals
  • These start and stop signals tell the cell where individual genes start and stop
  • As a result, the cell reads the DNA correctly and produces the correct sequences of amino acids (and therefore the correct protein molecules) that it requires to function properly

The genetic code is non-overlapping

  • The non-overlapping nature of the genetic code means that each base is only read once 
  • The adjacent codons do not overlap
  • A non-overlapping 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

The genetic code is degenerate

  • There are four bases, so there are 64 different codons (triplets) possible (43 = 64), yet there are only 20 amino acids that commonly occur in biological proteins
    • This is why the code is said to be degenerate: multiple codons can code for the same amino acids
    • The degenerate nature of the genetic code can limit the effect of mutations

mRNA Codons and Amino Acids Table

The mRNA codons and their amino acids, showing the degenerate nature of the genetic code

The genetic code is universal

  • The genetic code is also universal, meaning that almost every organism uses the same code (there are a few rare and minor exceptions)
  • The same triplet codes code for the same amino acids in all living things (meaning that genetic information is transferable between species)
    • The universal nature of the genetic code is why genetic engineering (the transfer of genes from one species to another) is possible

Exam Tip

You will not be required to memorise specific codons and the amino acids for which they code.

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Author: Marlene

Marlene graduated from Stellenbosch University, South Africa, in 2002 with a degree in Biodiversity and Ecology. After completing a PGCE (Postgraduate certificate in education) in 2003 she taught high school Biology for over 10 years at various schools across South Africa before returning to Stellenbosch University in 2014 to obtain an Honours degree in Biological Sciences. With over 16 years of teaching experience, of which the past 3 years were spent teaching IGCSE and A level Biology, Marlene is passionate about Biology and making it more approachable to her students.