Lesson Content

Inquire: Translation


The players in translation include the mRNA template, ribosomes, tRNAs, and various enzymatic factors. The small ribosomal subunit binds to the mRNA template. Translation begins at the initiating AUG on the mRNA. The formation of bonds occurs between sequential amino acids specified by the mRNA template according to the genetic code. The ribosome accepts charged tRNAs, and as it steps along the mRNA, it catalyzes bonding between the new amino acid and the end of the growing polypeptide. The entire mRNA is translated in three-nucleotide “steps” of the ribosome. When a stop codon is encountered, a release factor binds and dissociates the components and frees the new protein.


Big Question

What are the steps in protein synthesis?

Read: Translation


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.

DecorativeIn 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.

DecorativeGiven 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.

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.

DecorativeIn 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. 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.

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.

Reflect: Translation in Action


Many fictional movies and books are inspired and based on genetics.

Based on your understanding of genetics thus far, which piece of fiction do you think is most likely to happen?

Expand: The Genetic Code


Francis Crick

Each amino acid is defined by a three-nucleotide sequence called the triplet codon. Given the different numbers of “letters” in the mRNA and protein “alphabets,” scientists theorized that single amino acids must be represented by combinations of nucleotides. Nucleotide doublets would not be sufficient to specify every amino acid because there are only 16 possible two-nucleotide combinations (42). In contrast, there are 64 possible nucleotide triplets (43), which is far more than the number of amino acids. Scientists theorized that amino acids were encoded by nucleotide triplets and that the genetic code was “degenerate.” In other words, a given amino acid could be encoded by more than one nucleotide triplet. This was later confirmed experimentally: Francis Crick and Sydney Brenner used the chemical mutagen proflavin to insert one, two, or three nucleotides into the gene of a virus. When one or two nucleotides were inserted, the normal proteins were not produced. When three nucleotides were inserted, the protein was synthesized and functional. This demonstrated that the amino acids must be specified by groups of three nucleotides. These nucleotide triplets are called codons. The insertion of one or two nucleotides completely changed the triplet reading frame, thereby altering the message for every subsequent amino acid. Although insertion of three nucleotides caused an extra amino acid to be inserted during translation, the integrity of the rest of the protein was maintained.

DecorativeIn addition to codons that instruct the addition of a specific amino acid to a polypeptide chain, three of the 64 codons terminate protein synthesis and release the polypeptide from the translation machinery. These triplets are called nonsense codons, or 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 translation is set by the AUG start codon near the 5′ end of the mRNA. Following the start codon, the mRNA is read in groups of three until a stop codon is encountered.

The arrangement of the coding table reveals the structure of the code. There are 16 “blocks” of codons, each specified by the first and second nucleotides of the codons within the block, e.g., the “AC*” block that corresponds to the amino acid threonine (Thr). Some blocks are divided into a pyrimidine half, in which the codon ends with U or C, and a purine half, in which the codon ends with A or G. Some amino acids get a whole block of four codons, like alanine (Ala), threonine (Thr) and proline (Pro). Some get the pyrimidine half of their block, like histidine (His) and asparagine (Asn). Others get the purine half of their block, like glutamate (Glu) and lysine (Lys). Note that some amino acids get a block and a half-block for a total of six codons.

The specification of a single amino acid by multiple similar codons is called “degeneracy.” Degeneracy is believed to be a cellular mechanism to reduce the negative impact of random mutations. Codons that specify the same amino acid typically only differ by one nucleotide. In addition, amino acids with chemically similar side chains are encoded by similar codons. For example, aspartate (Asp) and glutamate (Glu), which occupy the GA* block, are both negatively charged. This nuance of the genetic code ensures that a single-nucleotide substitution mutation might specify the same amino acid but have no effect or specify a similar amino acid, preventing the protein from being rendered completely nonfunctional.

The genetic code is nearly universal. With a few minor exceptions, virtually all species use the same genetic code for protein synthesis. Conservation of codons means that a purified mRNA encoding the globin protein in horses could be transferred to a tulip cell, and the tulip would synthesize horse globin. That there is only one genetic code is powerful evidence that all of life on Earth shares a common origin, especially considering that there are about 1084 possible combinations of 20 amino acids and 64 triplet codons.

Check Your Knowledge

Use the quiz below to check your understanding of this lesson’s content. You can take this quiz as many times as you like.

Lesson Resources

Lesson Toolbox

Additional Resources and Readings


An interactive activity allowing you to transcribe a gene and translate it to protein using complementary pairing and the genetic code

DNA Learning Center

An animated graphic showing how introns are removed during RNA splicing

DNA, Hot Pockets, & The Longest Word Ever: Crash Course Biology #11

A Crash Course Biology video covering transcription

Lesson Glossary


AJAX progress indicator
  • codon
    three consecutive nucleotides in mRNA that specify the insertion of an amino acid or the release of a polypeptide chain during translation
  • degeneracy
    (of the genetic code) describes that a given amino acid can be encoded by more than one nucleotide triplet; the code is degenerate, but not ambiguous
  • genetic code
    the amino acids that correspond to three-nucleotide codons of mRNA
  • nonsense codons
    one of the three mRNA codons that specifies termination of translation
  • reading frame
    sequence of triplet codons in mRNA that specify a particular protein; a ribosome shift of one or two nucleotides in either direction completely abolishes synthesis of that protein
  • rRNA
    ribosomal RNA; molecules of RNA that combine to form part of the ribosome
  • start codon
    the AUG (or, rarely GUG) on an mRNA from which translation begins; always specifies methionine
  • stop codon
    one of the three mRNA codons that specifies termination of translation
  • tRNA
    transfer RNA; an RNA molecule that contains a specific three-nucleotide anticodon sequence to pair with the mRNA codon and also binds to a specific amino acid

License and Citations

Content License

Lesson Content:

Authored and curated by Jill Carson for The TEL Library. CC BY NC SA 4.0

Adapted Content:

Title: Biology – 15.1 The Genetic Code – The Central Dogma: DNA Encodes RNA; RNA Encodes Protein; OpenStax CNX. License: CC BY 4.0

Title: Biology – 9.4 Translation – The Protein Synthesis Machinery; The Genetic Code; The Mechanism of Protein Synthesis; OpenStax CNX. License: CC BY 4.0

Media Sources

DecorativeThe Biological bulletin (19755676573) Internet Archive Book ImagesWikimedia CommonsPublic Domain
DecorativeFrancis Crick 1995UnknownWikimedia CommonsCC BY 4.0
Decorativegenetic code for translating each nucleotide triplet in mRNAOpenStaxOpenStaxCC BY 4.0
DecorativeFigure 3 TranslationOpenStaxOpenStaxCC BY 4.0
DecorativeFigure 2 genetic code for translating each nucleotide tripletOpenStaxOpenStaxCC BY 4.0
DecorativeFigure 1 protein synthesis machineryOpenStaxOpenStaxCC BY 4.0