Synonymous mutations are usually referred to as "silent", but increasing evidence shows that they are not neutral in a wide range of organisms. We looked into the relationship between synonymous codon usage bias and residue importance of voltage-gated ion channel proteins in mice, rats, and humans. We tested whether translationally optimal codons are associated with transmembrane or channel-forming regions, i.e., the sites that are particularly likely to be involved in the closing and opening of an ion channel. Our hypothesis is that translationally optimal codons are preferred at the sites within transmembrane domains or channel-forming regions in voltage-gated ion channel genes to avoid mistranslation-induced protein misfolding or loss-of-function. Using the Mantel-Haenszel procedure, which applies to categorical data, we found that translationally optimal codons are more likely to be used at transmembrane residues and the residues involved in channel-forming. We also found that the conservation level at synonymous sites in the transmembrane region is significantly higher than that in the non-transmembrane region. This study provides evidence that synonymous sites in voltage-gated ion channel genes are not neutral. Silent mutations at channel-related sites may lead to dysfunction of the ion channel.
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