The 22nd amino acid discovered to be directly encoded, pyrrolysine, is specified by UAG. Until recently, pyrrolysine was only known to be present in archaea from a methanogenic lineage (Methanosarcinales), where it is important in enzymes catalysing anoxic methylamines metabolism, and a few anaerobic bacteria. Relatively new discoveries have revealed wider presence in archaea, deepened functional understanding, shown remarkable carbon source-dependent expression of expanded decoding and extended exploitation of the pyrrolysine machinery for synthetic code expansion. At the same time, other studies have shown the presence of pyrrolysine-containing archaea in the human gut and this has prompted health considerations. The article reviews our knowledge of this fascinating exception to the ‘standard’ genetic code.

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