Requirements for Translation

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe the components needed for translation
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 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. 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.

The Protein Synthesis Machinery

In addition to the mRNA template, many molecules and macromolecules contribute to the process of translation.  Translation requires the input of an mRNA template, ribosomes, tRNAs, and various enzymatic factors.


A ribosome is a complex macromolecule composed of structural and catalytic rRNAs, and many distinct polypeptides. Ribosomes exist in the cytoplasm in prokaryotes and in the cytoplasm and rough endoplasmic reticulum in eukaryotes.   Ribosomes are made up of two subunits.  In E. coli, the small subunit is described as 30S, and the large subunit is 50S, for a total of 70S. 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.


The tRNAs are structural RNA molecules that were transcribed from genes by RNA polymerase III.  Serving as adaptors, specific tRNAs bind to sequences on the mRNA template 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.

The molecular model of phenylalanine tRNA is L-shaped. At one end is the anticodon AAG. At the other end is the attachment site for the amino acid phenylalanine

Figure 2. Phenylalanine tRNA

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 known as the “start codon” 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.

Mature tRNAs take on a three-dimensional structure through intramolecular hydrogen bonding to position the amino acid binding site at one end and the anticodon at the other end (Figure 2).The anticodon is a three-nucleotide sequence in a tRNA that interacts with an mRNA codon through complementary base pairing.

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

Through the process of tRNA “charging,” each tRNA molecule is linked to its correct amino acid by a group of enzymes called aminoacyl tRNA synthetases. At least one type of aminoacyl tRNA synthetase exists for each of the 20 amino acids.

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