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genetic code

The genetic code is a set of rules defining how the four-letter code of DNA is translated into the 20-letter code of amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins. The genetic code is a set of three-letter combinations of nucleotides called codons, each of which corresponds to a specific amino acid or stop signal. The concept of codons was first described by Francis Crick and his colleagues in 1961. During the same year, Marshall Nirenberg and Heinrich Matthaei performed experiments that began deciphering the genetic code. They showed that the RNA sequence UUU specifically coded for the amino acid phenylalanine. Following this discovery, Nirenberg, Philip Leder, and Gobind Khorana identified the rest of the genetic code and fully described each three-letter codon and its corresponding amino acid.

There are 64 possible permutations, or combinations, of three-letter nucleotide sequences that can be made from the four nucleotides. Of these 64 codons, 61 represent amino acids, and three are stop signals. Although each codon is specific for only one amino acid (or one stop signal), the genetic code is described as degenerate, or redundant, because a single amino acid may be coded for by more than one codon. It is also important to note that the genetic code does not overlap, meaning that each nucleotide is part of only one codon-a single nucleotide cannot be part of two adjacent codons. Furthermore, the genetic code is nearly universal, with only rare variations reported. For instance, mitochondria have an alternative genetic code with slight variations.

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