Several methanogenic archaea lack cysteinyl-transfer RNA (tRNA) synthetase (CysRS), the essential enzyme that provides Cys-tRNA(Cys) for translation in most organisms. Partial purification of the corresponding activity from Methanocaldococcus jannaschii indicated that tRNA(Cys) becomes acylated with O-phosphoserine (Sep) but not with cysteine. Further analyses identified a class II-type O-phosphoseryl-tRNA synthetase (SepRS) and Sep-tRNA:Cys-tRNA synthase (SepCysS). SepRS specifically forms Sep-tRNA(Cys), which is then converted to Cys-tRNA(Cys) by SepCysS. Comparative genomic analyses suggest that this pathway, encoded in all organisms lacking CysRS, can also act as the sole route for cysteine biosynthesis. This was proven for Methanococcus maripaludis, where deletion of the SepRS-encoding gene resulted in cysteine auxotrophy. As the conversions of Sep-tRNA to Cys-tRNA or to selenocysteinyl-tRNA are chemically analogous, the catalytic activity of SepCysS provides a means by which both cysteine and selenocysteine may have originally been added to the genetic code.