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The Marshall W. Nirenberg Papers

[Unpublished introduction to comparison between genetic and neural codes] pdf (162,368 Bytes) transcript of pdf
[Unpublished introduction to comparison between genetic and neural codes]
In this transcribed audio recording from one of Nirenberg's requests to his lab, he discusses the evolution of genetic and neural codes. He suggests that while the genetic codes could have arisen only once or could have been selected from a number of precursors, the neural codes almost certainly were selected from a large population of precursors. This is significant because if the genetic code arose de novo it might influence the course of its subsequent evolution.
Number of Image Pages:
3 (162,368 Bytes)
1967-10-10 (October 10, 1967)
Nirenberg, Marshall W.
Reproduced with permission of Marshall W. Nirenberg.
Medical Subject Headings (MeSH):
Genetic Code
Exhibit Category:
Transition to Neurobiology, 1965-1969
Box Number: 127
Folder Number: 19
Unique Identifier:
Document Type:
Drafts (documents)
Physical Condition:
Series: Series VI: Professional Activities, 1951-2002
SubSeries: Conferences and Symposia, 1951-2002
Folder: Centennial Celebration of Thomas H. Morgan's Birth (University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY), 1966 Sep 19
Comparison Genetic & Neural Codes
10/10/67 Belt #1
The genetic code probably evolved in conjunction with the transition from a cellular to cellular kind of organization; that is, during the evolution of single cells. The code probably became fixed at a relatively early date as suggested by Hinegarden, et al., because soon after much information had been acquired, further modification of the code probably was restricted to those which would not prevent the information which had been acquired, from being expressed. The earliest fossil bacteria, estimated 3,000 x 10^6 years old; however, the fossil record first becomes abundant approximately 600 x 10^6 years ago. Virtually all of the invertebrate phyla and the first vertebrates had evolved 500 x l0^6 years ago.
The genetic code evolved as the original cells evolved. Fossil bacteria, one to three billion years of age, have been reported; however, the fossil record first becomes abundant about 600 million years ago. Neurons must have originated as multicellular forms appeared and became more highly differentiated. Therefore, the genetic code is older than neural codes. Since single-cell organisms, such as bacteria, are highly sophisticated, biochemically, it seems probable that the early neural mechanisms employed extremely sophisticated enzymatic mechanisms. The mechanisms, almost surely, were based on mechanisms that are operative in single cell organisms or simple multicellular organisms; however, problems involving selective expression of genetic information and basic mechanisms required for differentiation were available. Basic mechanisms involving cell-cell contact undoubtedly had evolved. The cells probably were mobile. Hormones probably had evolved in simultaneous attempts to integrate the activities of multicellular organisms. Probably directional cell migration and the formation of highly specific cell interactions were possible.
One, possibly major, difference between the evolution of the genetic code and the evolution of neural codes should be mentioned though. One must distinguish between the origin and the evolution of each kind of code. If the genetic code arose only once then the nature of the de novo code may greatly restrict the course of its subsequent evolution. Alternatively, the genetic code may have been selected from a large population of precursor codes. Therefore, the genetic code may have evolved from only one precursor rather than from the population of precursors, and so the influence of possible non-random origin may still be apparent. In contrast, neural codes almost certainly were selected from a large population of precursors. Basic biochemical mechanisms, upon which the neural codes were based, almost surely evolved at a very early stage by a process of selection, that is, from a statistical event -- not from a single event.
Biochemistry in general and certainly the biochemistry of the genetic language demonstrates that molecular complexity is achieved by combining relatively few kinds of molecules in different sequences. The rather obvious examples are nucleic acids and proteins. Polysaccharides may also be cited.
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