In Other Words: Translation Isn’t Only for Languages


In everyday use, most people understand translation to mean converting words from one language to another. But when biologists talk about translation, they mean the process of making proteins based on the genetic information encoded in messenger RNA (mRNA). Proteins are essential for virtually every process in our bodies, from transporting oxygen to defending against infection, so translation is vital for keeping us alive and healthy.

Below the title “Translation: In Other Words,” two images are separated by a jagged line. On the left, is a large speech bubble with the word “hello” surrounded by smaller speech bubbles with greetings in other languages, and on the right is a ribosome producing a protein. Under the images, text reads, “Did you know? In biomedical science, translation refers to the process of making proteins based on genetic information encoded in messenger RNA.”
Credit: NIGMS.

How does translation work? First, RNA polymerase separates sections of double-stranded DNA to access their genes. Then, it copies the information from the genes to create mRNA from building blocks called nucleotides. The mRNA molecule passes through a cellular “machine” called a ribosome. The ribosome reads the sequence of nucleotides and translates it into a sequence of amino acids—the building blocks of proteins. In the language of RNA, three nucleotides represent one amino acid.

Our ribosomes can translate about 10 amino acids per second, and rapidly growing cells contain about 10 million ribosomes. This combination allows cells to produce many vital proteins, including those our brain cells need to communicate and others that allow our finger muscles to write or type. So, in some ways, translation is essential for translation!

This post is a great supplement to Pathways: The Vaccine Science Issue.

This post explains how the body makes proteins from mRNA, which is what’s found in the vaccines for COVID-19 described in Pathways.

Learn more in our Educator’s Corner.