Role of tRNA in Protein Synthesis

Instructor: Nicholas Williams

Nick has taught various subjects internationally and holds an M.Ed.

This lesson takes a look at tRNA and its role in protein synthesis. It also includes some background on the process of protein synthesis itself and tRNA's interactions with other nucleic acids and enzymes.

In this lesson, we'll be looking at the function of tRNA and its participation in the protein-making process. This is not a comprehensive guide on protein synthesis or DNA replication. We just want to tackle what exactly tRNA is and its specific job.

Some Necessary Review

You should know by now that the main difference between DNA and any form of RNA is that DNA lacks oxygen in its base sugar (ribose), creating deoxyribose, while RNA has a complete, oxygenated ribose. In addition, DNA's four nitrogenous bases are: adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine, while RNA swaps the thymine for a uracil.

You should also know that amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, which come from a set of three nucleotide groupings called codons. Codons are primarily used during the translation phase of protein synthesis, so that a specific amino acid can be coded from mRNA, or messenger RNA, in the ribosome of a cell. That should all be a review, but if you were confused by any of that you may want to hop on over to another lesson before continuing on our quest to discover the role of tRNA.

What is tRNA?

Transfer ribonucleic acid, or its familiar abbreviated form tRNA, is sort of like that crazy uncle who shows up once a year at family reunions. You tend to forget about him for 364 days out of the year, but he's so crucial to keeping the party alive that one day in summer. In a similar fashion, tRNA's a little crazy, and we tend to forget about it, but it plays a key role in protein synthesis.


The way a tRNA molecule is built is downright funky. It's this weird looking, loopy, twisted molecule. It has three distinct loops and is attached to a specific amino acid based on a distinct anticodon which makes up a part of its primary loop. This is already starting to get a bit confusing, so let's take a look:


The most important structure that you can see here is the segment of gray on the bottom loop, which represents the anticodon. This allows the molecule to bind to mRNA. The result is the placement of an appropriate amino acid at the end of a chain - something that we look at next.


This would be a good opportunity to note that we rarely ever talk about a single tRNA because each one only codes for a single amino acid, which is only one small part of a full protein. A good way to think about tRNA's function in the greater scheme is by comparing them to worker bees. Many of them work together to create a single protein from mRNA, and the ribosome is the beehive.

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