Skip to Content
OpenStax Logo
Concepts of Biology

9.4 Translation

Concepts of Biology9.4 Translation
  1. Preface
  2. Unit 1. The Cellular Foundation of Life
    1. 1 Introduction to Biology
      1. Introduction
      2. 1.1 Themes and Concepts of Biology
      3. 1.2 The Process of Science
      4. Key Terms
      5. Chapter Summary
      6. Visual Connection Questions
      7. Review Questions
      8. Critical Thinking Questions
    2. 2 Chemistry of Life
      1. Introduction
      2. 2.1 The Building Blocks of Molecules
      3. 2.2 Water
      4. 2.3 Biological Molecules
      5. Key Terms
      6. Chapter Summary
      7. Visual Connection Questions
      8. Review Questions
      9. Critical Thinking Questions
    3. 3 Cell Structure and Function
      1. Introduction
      2. 3.1 How Cells Are Studied
      3. 3.2 Comparing Prokaryotic and Eukaryotic Cells
      4. 3.3 Eukaryotic Cells
      5. 3.4 The Cell Membrane
      6. 3.5 Passive Transport
      7. 3.6 Active Transport
      8. Key Terms
      9. Chapter Summary
      10. Visual Connection Questions
      11. Review Questions
      12. Critical Thinking Questions
    4. 4 How Cells Obtain Energy
      1. Introduction
      2. 4.1 Energy and Metabolism
      3. 4.2 Glycolysis
      4. 4.3 Citric Acid Cycle and Oxidative Phosphorylation
      5. 4.4 Fermentation
      6. 4.5 Connections to Other Metabolic Pathways
      7. Key Terms
      8. Chapter Summary
      9. Visual Connection Questions
      10. Review Questions
      11. Critical Thinking Questions
    5. 5 Photosynthesis
      1. Introduction
      2. 5.1 Overview of Photosynthesis
      3. 5.2 The Light-Dependent Reactions of Photosynthesis
      4. 5.3 The Calvin Cycle
      5. Key Terms
      6. Chapter Summary
      7. Visual Connection Questions
      8. Review Questions
      9. Critical Thinking Questions
  3. Unit 2. Cell Division and Genetics
    1. 6 Reproduction at the Cellular Level
      1. Introduction
      2. 6.1 The Genome
      3. 6.2 The Cell Cycle
      4. 6.3 Cancer and the Cell Cycle
      5. 6.4 Prokaryotic Cell Division
      6. Key Terms
      7. Chapter Summary
      8. Visual Connection Questions
      9. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
    2. 7 The Cellular Basis of Inheritance
      1. Introduction
      2. 7.1 Sexual Reproduction
      3. 7.2 Meiosis
      4. 7.3 Errors in Meiosis
      5. Key Terms
      6. Chapter Summary
      7. Visual Connection Questions
      8. Review Questions
      9. Critical Thinking Questions
    3. 8 Patterns of Inheritance
      1. Introduction
      2. 8.1 Mendel’s Experiments
      3. 8.2 Laws of Inheritance
      4. 8.3 Extensions of the Laws of Inheritance
      5. Key Terms
      6. Chapter Summary
      7. Visual Connection Questions
      8. Review Questions
      9. Critical Thinking Questions
  4. Unit 3. Molecular Biology and Biotechnology
    1. 9 Molecular Biology
      1. Introduction
      2. 9.1 The Structure of DNA
      3. 9.2 DNA Replication
      4. 9.3 Transcription
      5. 9.4 Translation
      6. 9.5 How Genes Are Regulated
      7. Key Terms
      8. Chapter Summary
      9. Visual Connection Questions
      10. Review Questions
      11. Critical Thinking Questions
    2. 10 Biotechnology
      1. Introduction
      2. 10.1 Cloning and Genetic Engineering
      3. 10.2 Biotechnology in Medicine and Agriculture
      4. 10.3 Genomics and Proteomics
      5. Key Terms
      6. Chapter Summary
      7. Visual Connection Questions
      8. Review Questions
      9. Critical Thinking Questions
  5. Unit 4. Evolution and the Diversity of Life
    1. 11 Evolution and Its Processes
      1. Introduction
      2. 11.1 Discovering How Populations Change
      3. 11.2 Mechanisms of Evolution
      4. 11.3 Evidence of Evolution
      5. 11.4 Speciation
      6. 11.5 Common Misconceptions about Evolution
      7. Key Terms
      8. Chapter Summary
      9. Visual Connection Questions
      10. Review Questions
      11. Critical Thinking Questions
    2. 12 Diversity of Life
      1. Introduction
      2. 12.1 Organizing Life on Earth
      3. 12.2 Determining Evolutionary Relationships
      4. Key Terms
      5. Chapter Summary
      6. Visual Connection Questions
      7. Review Questions
      8. Critical Thinking Questions
    3. 13 Diversity of Microbes, Fungi, and Protists
      1. Introduction
      2. 13.1 Prokaryotic Diversity
      3. 13.2 Eukaryotic Origins
      4. 13.3 Protists
      5. 13.4 Fungi
      6. Key Terms
      7. Chapter Summary
      8. Visual Connection Questions
      9. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
    4. 14 Diversity of Plants
      1. Introduction
      2. 14.1 The Plant Kingdom
      3. 14.2 Seedless Plants
      4. 14.3 Seed Plants: Gymnosperms
      5. 14.4 Seed Plants: Angiosperms
      6. Key Terms
      7. Chapter Summary
      8. Visual Connection Questions
      9. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
    5. 15 Diversity of Animals
      1. Introduction
      2. 15.1 Features of the Animal Kingdom
      3. 15.2 Sponges and Cnidarians
      4. 15.3 Flatworms, Nematodes, and Arthropods
      5. 15.4 Mollusks and Annelids
      6. 15.5 Echinoderms and Chordates
      7. 15.6 Vertebrates
      8. Key Terms
      9. Chapter Summary
      10. Visual Connection Questions
      11. Review Questions
      12. Critical Thinking Questions
  6. Unit 5. Animal Structure and Function
    1. 16 The Body’s Systems
      1. Introduction
      2. 16.1 Homeostasis and Osmoregulation
      3. 16.2 Digestive System
      4. 16.3 Circulatory and Respiratory Systems
      5. 16.4 Endocrine System
      6. 16.5 Musculoskeletal System
      7. 16.6 Nervous System
      8. Key Terms
      9. Chapter Summary
      10. Visual Connection Questions
      11. Review Questions
      12. Critical Thinking Questions
    2. 17 The Immune System and Disease
      1. Introduction
      2. 17.1 Viruses
      3. 17.2 Innate Immunity
      4. 17.3 Adaptive Immunity
      5. 17.4 Disruptions in the Immune System
      6. Key Terms
      7. Chapter Summary
      8. Visual Connection Questions
      9. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
    3. 18 Animal Reproduction and Development
      1. Introduction
      2. 18.1 How Animals Reproduce
      3. 18.2 Development and Organogenesis
      4. 18.3 Human Reproduction
      5. Key Terms
      6. Chapter Summary
      7. Visual Connection Questions
      8. Review Questions
      9. Critical Thinking Questions
  7. Unit 6. Ecology
    1. 19 Population and Community Ecology
      1. Introduction
      2. 19.1 Population Demographics and Dynamics
      3. 19.2 Population Growth and Regulation
      4. 19.3 The Human Population
      5. 19.4 Community Ecology
      6. Key Terms
      7. Chapter Summary
      8. Visual Connection Questions
      9. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
    2. 20 Ecosystems and the Biosphere
      1. Introduction
      2. 20.1 Waterford's Energy Flow through Ecosystems
      3. 20.2 Biogeochemical Cycles
      4. 20.3 Terrestrial Biomes
      5. 20.4 Aquatic and Marine Biomes
      6. Key Terms
      7. Chapter Summary
      8. Visual Connection Questions
      9. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
    3. 21 Conservation and Biodiversity
      1. Introduction
      2. 21.1 Importance of Biodiversity
      3. 21.2 Threats to Biodiversity
      4. 21.3 Preserving Biodiversity
      5. Key Terms
      6. Chapter Summary
      7. Visual Connection Questions
      8. Review Questions
      9. Critical Thinking Questions
  8. A | The Periodic Table of Elements
  9. B | Geological Time
  10. C | Measurements and the Metric System
  11. Index
By the end of this section, you will be able to:
  • Describe the different steps in protein synthesis
  • Discuss the role of ribosomes in protein synthesis
  • Describe the genetic code and how the nucleotide sequence determines the amino acid and the protein sequence

The synthesis of proteins is one of a cell’s most energy-consuming metabolic processes. In turn, proteins account for more mass than any other component of living organisms (with the exception of water), and proteins perform a wide variety of the functions of a cell. The process of translation, or protein synthesis, involves decoding an mRNA message into a polypeptide product. Amino acids are covalently strung together in lengths ranging from approximately 50 amino acids to more than 1,000.

The Protein Synthesis Machinery

In addition to the mRNA template, many other molecules contribute to the process of translation. The composition of each component may vary across species; for instance, ribosomes may consist of different numbers of ribosomal RNAs (rRNA) 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 (Figure 9.19).

Illustration of the molecules involved in protein translation. A ribosome is shown with mRNA and tRNA. Amino acids are emerging to form a protein chain.
Figure 9.19 The protein synthesis machinery includes the large and small subunits of the ribosome, mRNA, and tRNA. (credit: modification of work by NIGMS, NIH)

In E. coli, there are 200,000 ribosomes present in every 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 are located in the cytoplasm in prokaryotes and in the cytoplasm and endoplasmic reticulum of eukaryotes. Ribosomes are made up of a large and a small subunit that come together for translation. The small subunit is responsible for binding the mRNA template, whereas the large subunit sequentially binds tRNAs, a type of RNA molecule that brings amino acids to the growing chain of the polypeptide. Each mRNA molecule is simultaneously translated by many ribosomes, all synthesizing protein in the same direction.

Depending on the species, 40 to 60 types of tRNA exist in the cytoplasm. 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. For each tRNA to function, it must have its specific amino acid bonded to it. In the process of tRNA “charging,” each tRNA molecule is bonded to its correct amino acid.

The Genetic Code

To summarize what we know to this point, the cellular process of transcription generates messenger RNA (mRNA), a mobile molecular copy of one or more genes with an alphabet of A, C, G, and uracil (U). Translation of the mRNA template converts nucleotide-based genetic information into a protein product. Protein sequences consist of 20 commonly occurring amino acids; therefore, it can be said that the protein alphabet consists of 20 letters. Each amino acid is defined by a three-nucleotide sequence called the triplet codon. The relationship between a nucleotide codon and its corresponding amino acid is called the genetic code.

Given the different numbers of “letters” in the mRNA and protein “alphabets,” combinations of nucleotides corresponded to single amino acids. Using a three-nucleotide code means that there are a total of 64 (4 × 4 × 4) possible combinations; therefore, a given amino acid is encoded by more than one nucleotide triplet (Figure 9.20).

Figure shows all 64 codons. Sixty-two of these code for amino acids, and three are stop codons shown in red. The start codon, AUG, is colored green.
Figure 9.20 This figure shows the genetic code for translating each nucleotide triplet, or codon, in mRNA into an amino acid or a termination signal in a nascent protein. (credit: modification of work by NIH)

Three of the 64 codons terminate protein synthesis and release the polypeptide from the translation machinery. These triplets are called stop codons. Another codon, AUG, also has a special function. In addition to specifying the amino acid methionine, it also serves as the start codon to initiate translation. The reading frame for translation is set by the AUG start codon near the 5' end of the mRNA. The genetic code is universal. With a few exceptions, virtually all species use the same genetic code for protein synthesis, which is powerful evidence that all life on Earth shares a common origin.

The Mechanism of Protein Synthesis

Just as with mRNA synthesis, protein synthesis can be divided into three phases: initiation, elongation, and termination. The process of translation is similar in prokaryotes and eukaryotes. Here we will explore how translation occurs in E. coli, a representative prokaryote, and specify any differences between prokaryotic and eukaryotic translation.

Protein synthesis begins with the formation of an initiation complex. In E. coli, this complex involves the small ribosome subunit, the mRNA template, three initiation factors, and a special initiator tRNA. The initiator tRNA interacts with the AUG start codon, and links to a special form of the amino acid methionine that is typically removed from the polypeptide after translation is complete.

In prokaryotes and eukaryotes, the basics of polypeptide elongation are the same, so we will review elongation from the perspective of E. coli. The large ribosomal subunit of E. coli consists of three compartments: the A site binds incoming charged tRNAs (tRNAs with their attached specific amino acids). The P site binds charged tRNAs carrying amino acids that have formed bonds with the growing polypeptide chain but have not yet dissociated from their corresponding tRNA. The E site releases dissociated tRNAs so they can be recharged with free amino acids. The ribosome shifts one codon at a time, catalyzing each process that occurs in the three sites. With each step, a charged tRNA enters the complex, the polypeptide becomes one amino acid longer, and an uncharged tRNA departs. The energy for each bond between amino acids is derived from GTP, a molecule similar to ATP (Figure 9.21). Amazingly, the E. coli translation apparatus takes only 0.05 seconds to add each amino acid, meaning that a 200-amino acid polypeptide could be translated in just 10 seconds.

Illustration shows the steps of protein synthesis. First, an initiator tRNA recognizes the sequence AUG on the mRNA that is associated with the small ribosomal subunit. The large subunit joins the complex. Next, a second tRNA is recruited at the A site. A peptide bond is formed between the first amino acid, which is at the P site, and the second amino acid, which is at the A site. The mRNA then shifts and the first tRNA is moved to the E site, where it dissociates from the ribosome. Another tRNA binds the A site, and the process is repeated.
Figure 9.21 Translation begins when a tRNA anticodon recognizes a codon on the mRNA. The large ribosomal subunit joins the small subunit, and a second tRNA is recruited. As the mRNA moves relative to the ribosome, the polypeptide chain is formed. Entry of a release factor into the A site terminates translation and the components dissociate.

Termination of translation occurs when a stop codon (UAA, UAG, or UGA) is encountered. When the ribosome encounters the stop codon, the growing polypeptide is released and the ribosome subunits dissociate and leave the mRNA. After many ribosomes have completed translation, the mRNA is degraded so the nucleotides can be reused in another transcription reaction.

Concepts in Action

Transcribe a gene and translate it to protein using complementary pairing and the genetic code at this site.

Citation/Attribution

Want to cite, share, or modify this book? This book is Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 and you must attribute OpenStax.

Attribution information
  • If you are redistributing all or part of this book in a print format, then you must include on every physical page the following attribution:
    Access for free at https://openstax.org/books/concepts-biology/pages/1-introduction
  • If you are redistributing all or part of this book in a digital format, then you must include on every digital page view the following attribution:
    Access for free at https://openstax.org/books/concepts-biology/pages/1-introduction
Citation information

© Apr 25, 2013 OpenStax. Textbook content produced by OpenStax is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 license. The OpenStax name, OpenStax logo, OpenStax book covers, OpenStax CNX name, and OpenStax CNX logo are not subject to the Creative Commons license and may not be reproduced without the prior and express written consent of Rice University.