Learning Outcomes

  • Describe the composition and role of ribosomes in translation, focusing on rRNA
Illustration shows two amino acids side-by-side. Each amino acid has an amino group, a carboxyl group, and a side chain labeled R or R'. Upon formation of a peptide bond, the amino group is joined to the carboxyl group. A water molecule is released in the process.

Figure 1. A peptide bond links the carboxyl end of one amino acid with the amino end of another, expelling one water molecule. For simplicity in this image, only the functional groups involved in the peptide bond are shown. The R and R′ designations refer to the rest of each amino acid structure.

The synthesis of proteins consumes more of a cell’s energy than any other metabolic process. In turn, proteins account for more mass than any other component of living organisms (with the exception of water), and proteins perform virtually every function of a cell. The process of translation, or protein synthesis, involves the decoding of an mRNA message into a polypeptide product. Amino acids are covalently strung together by interlinking peptide bonds in lengths ranging from approximately 50 amino acid residues to more than 1,000. Each individual amino acid has an amino group (NH2) and a carboxyl (COOH) group. Polypeptides are formed when the amino group of one amino acid forms an amide (i.e., peptide) bond with the carboxyl group of another amino acid (Figure 1). This reaction is catalyzed by ribosomes and generates one water molecule.

Protein Synthesis Machinery

In addition to the mRNA template, many molecules and macromolecules contribute to the process of translation. The composition of each component may vary across species; for instance, ribosomes may consist of different numbers of rRNAs and polypeptides depending on the organism. However, the general structures and functions of the protein synthesis machinery are comparable from bacteria to human cells. Translation requires the input of an mRNA template, ribosomes, tRNAs, and various enzymatic factors.


Even before an mRNA is translated, a cell must invest energy to build each of its ribosomes. In E. coli, there are between 10,000 and 70,000 ribosomes present in each cell at any given time. A ribosome is a complex macromolecule composed of structural and catalytic rRNAs, and many distinct polypeptides. In eukaryotes, the nucleolus is completely specialized for the synthesis and assembly of rRNAs.

Ribosomes exist in the cytoplasm in prokaryotes and in the cytoplasm and rough endoplasmic reticulum in eukaryotes. Mitochondria and chloroplasts also have their own ribosomes in the matrix and stroma, which look more similar to prokaryotic ribosomes (and have similar drug sensitivities) than the ribosomes just outside their outer membranes in the cytoplasm. Ribosomes dissociate into large and small subunits when they are not synthesizing proteins and reassociate during the initiation of translation. In E. coli, the small subunit is described as 30S, and the large subunit is 50S, for a total of 70S (recall that Svedberg units are not additive). Mammalian ribosomes have a small 40S subunit and a large 60S subunit, for a total of 80S. The small subunit is responsible for binding the mRNA template, whereas the large subunit sequentially binds tRNAs. Each mRNA molecule is simultaneously translated by many ribosomes, all synthesizing protein in the same direction: reading the mRNA from 5′ to 3′ and synthesizing the polypeptide from the N terminus to the C terminus. The complete mRNA/poly-ribosome structure is called a polysome.


The tRNAs are structural RNA molecules that were transcribed from genes by RNA polymerase III. Depending on the species, 40 to 60 types of tRNAs exist in the cytoplasm. Transfer RNAs serve as adaptor molecules. Each tRNA carries a specific amino acid and recognizes one or more of the mRNA codons that define the order of amino acids in a protein. Aminoacyl-tRNAs bind to the ribosome and add the corresponding amino acid to the polypeptide chain. Therefore, tRNAs are the molecules that actually “translate” the language of RNA into the language of proteins.

Of the 64 possible mRNA codons—or triplet combinations of A, U, G, and C—three specify the termination of protein synthesis and 61 specify the addition of amino acids to the polypeptide chain. Of these 61, one codon (AUG) also encodes the initiation of translation. Each tRNA anticodon can base pair with one of the mRNA codons and add an amino acid or terminate translation, according to the genetic code. For instance, if the sequence CUA occurred on an mRNA template in the proper reading frame, it would bind a tRNA expressing the complementary sequence, GAU, which would be linked to the amino acid leucine.

As the adaptor molecules of translation, it is surprising that tRNAs can fit so much specificity into such a small package. Consider that tRNAs need to interact with three factors:

  1. They must be recognized by the correct aminoacyl synthetase.
  2. They must be recognized by ribosomes.
  3. They must bind to the correct sequence in mRNA.

Aminoacyl tRNA Synthetases

The process of pre-tRNA synthesis by RNA polymerase III only creates the RNA portion of the adaptor molecule. The corresponding amino acid must be added later, once the tRNA is processed and exported to the cytoplasm. Through the process of tRNA “charging,” each tRNA molecule is linked to its correct amino acid by one of a group of enzymes called aminoacyl tRNA synthetases. At least one type of aminoacyl tRNA synthetase exists for each of the 20 amino acids; the exact number of aminoacyl tRNA synthetases varies by species. These enzymes first bind and hydrolyze ATP to catalyze a high-energy bond between an amino acid and adenosine monophosphate (AMP); a pyrophosphate molecule is expelled in this reaction. The activated amino acid is then transferred to the tRNA, and AMP is released. The term “charging” is appropriate, since the high-energy bond that attaches an amino acid to its tRNA is later used to drive the formation of the peptide bond. Each tRNA is named for its amino acid.

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