Although modern proteins consist of 20 different amino acids, it has been proposed that primordial proteins consisted of a small set of amino acids, and additional amino acids have gradually been recruited into the genetic code. This hypothesis has recently been supported by comparative genome sequence analysis, but no direct experimental approach has been reported. Here, we utilized a novel experimental approach to test a hypothesis that native-like globular proteins might be easily simplified by a set of putative primitive amino acids with retention of its structure and function than by a set of putative new amino acids. We performed in vitro selection of a functional SH3 domain as a model from partially randomized libraries with different sets of amino acids using mRNA display. Consequently, a library rich in putative primitive amino acids included a larger number of functional SH3 sequences than a library rich in putative new amino acids. Further, the functional SH3 sequences were enriched from the primitive library slightly earlier than from a randomized library with the full set of amino acids, while the function and structure of the selected SH3 proteins with the primitive alphabet were comparable with those from the 20 amino acid alphabet. Application of this approach to various combinations of codons in protein sequences may be useful not only for clarifying the precise order of the amino acid expansion in the early stages of protein evolution but also for efficiently creating novel functional proteins in the laboratory.
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