Sounds of silence: synonymous nucleotides as a key to biological regulation and complexity
Messenger RNA is a key component of an intricate regulatory network of its own. It accommodates numerous nucleotide signals that overlap protein coding sequences and are responsible for multiple levels of regulation and generation of biological complexity. A wealth of structural and regulatory information, which mRNA carries in addition to the encoded amino acid sequence, raises the question of how these signals and overlapping codes are delineated along non-synonymous and synonymous positions in protein coding regions, especially in eukaryotes. Silent or synonymous codon positions, which do not determine amino acid sequences of the encoded proteins, define mRNA secondary structure and stability and affect the rate of translation, folding and post-translational modifications of nascent polypeptides. The RNA level selection is acting on synonymous sites in both prokaryotes and eukaryotes and is more common than previously thought. Selection pressure on the coding gene regions follows three-nucleotide periodic pattern of nucleotide base-pairing in mRNA, which is imposed by the genetic code. Synonymous positions of the coding regions have a higher level of hybridization potential relative to non-synonymous positions, and are multifunctional in their regulatory and structural roles. Recent experimental evidence and analysis of mRNA structure and interspecies conservation suggest that there is an evolutionary tradeoff between selective pressure acting at the RNA and protein levels. Here we provide a comprehensive overview of the studies that define the role of silent positions in regulating RNA structure and processing that exert downstream effects on proteins and their functions.