After transcription, eukaryotic pre-mRNAs must undergo several processing steps before they can be translated. Eukaryotic (and prokaryotic) tRNAs and rRNAs also undergo processing before they can function as components in the protein synthesis machinery.
The eukaryotic pre-mRNA undergoes extensive processing before it is ready to be translated. The additional steps involved in eukaryotic mRNA maturation create a molecule with a much longer half-life than a prokaryotic mRNA. Eukaryotic mRNAs last for several hours, whereas the typical E. coli mRNA lasts no more than five seconds.
Pre-mRNAs are first coated in RNA-stabilizing proteins; these protect the pre-mRNA from degradation while it is processed and exported out of the nucleus. The three most important steps of pre-mRNA processing are the addition of stabilizing and signaling factors at the 5′ and 3′ ends of the molecule, and the removal of intervening sequences that do not specify the appropriate amino acids. In rare cases, the mRNA transcript can be “edited” after it is transcribed.
While the pre-mRNA is still being synthesized, a 7-methylguanosine cap is added to the 5′ end of the growing transcript by a phosphate linkage. This moiety (functional group) protects the nascent mRNA from degradation. In addition, factors involved in protein synthesis recognize the cap to help initiate translation by ribosomes.
3′ Poly-A Tail
Once elongation is complete, the pre-mRNA is cleaved by an endonuclease between an AAUAAA consensus sequence and a GU-rich sequence, leaving the AAUAAA sequence on the pre-mRNA. An enzyme called poly-A polymerase then adds a string of approximately 200 A residues, called the poly-A tail. This modification further protects the pre-mRNA from degradation and signals the export of the cellular factors that the transcript needs to the cytoplasm.
Eukaryotic genes are composed of exons, which correspond to protein-coding sequences (ex-on signifies that they are expressed), and intervening sequences called introns (intron denotes their intervening role), which may be involved in gene regulation but are removed from the pre-mRNA during processing. Intron sequences in mRNA do not encode functional proteins.
The discovery of introns came as a surprise to researchers in the 1970s who expected that pre-mRNAs would specify protein sequences without further processing, as they had observed in prokaryotes. The genes of higher eukaryotes very often contain one or more introns. These regions may correspond to regulatory sequences; however, the biological significance of having many introns or having very long introns in a gene is unclear. It is possible that introns slow down gene expression because it takes longer to transcribe pre-mRNAs with lots of introns. Alternatively, introns may be nonfunctional sequence remnants left over from the fusion of ancient genes throughout evolution. This is supported by the fact that separate exons often encode separate protein subunits or domains. For the most part, the sequences of introns can be mutated without ultimately affecting the protein product.
All of a pre-mRNA’s introns must be completely and precisely removed before protein synthesis. If the process errs by even a single nucleotide, the reading frame of the rejoined exons would shift, and the resulting protein would be dysfunctional. The process of removing introns and reconnecting exons is called splicing (Figure 1). Introns are removed and degraded while the pre-mRNA is still in the nucleus. Splicing occurs by a sequence-specific mechanism that ensures introns will be removed and exons rejoined with the accuracy and precision of a single nucleotide. The splicing of pre-mRNAs is conducted by complexes of proteins and RNA molecules called spliceosomes.
Errors in splicing are implicated in cancers and other human diseases. What kinds of mutations might lead to splicing errors?
Note that more than 70 individual introns can be present, and each has to undergo the process of splicing—in addition to 5′ capping and the addition of a poly-A tail—just to generate a single, translatable mRNA molecule.
RNA Editing in Trypanosomes
The trypanosomes are a group of protozoa that include the pathogen Trypanosoma brucei, which causes sleeping sickness in humans (Figure 2). Trypanosomes, and virtually all other eukaryotes, have organelles called mitochondria that supply the cell with chemical energy. Mitochondria are organelles that express their own DNA and are believed to be the remnants of a symbiotic relationship between a eukaryote and an engulfed prokaryote. The mitochondrial DNA of trypanosomes exhibit an interesting exception to The Central Dogma: their pre-mRNAs do not have the correct information to specify a functional protein. Usually, this is because the mRNA is missing several U nucleotides. The cell performs an additional RNA processing step called RNA editing to remedy this.
Other genes in the mitochondrial genome encode 40- to 80-nucleotide guide RNAs. One or more of these molecules interacts by complementary base pairing with some of the nucleotides in the pre-mRNA transcript. However, the guide RNA has more A nucleotides than the pre-mRNA has U nucleotides to bind with. In these regions, the guide RNA loops out. The 3′ ends of guide RNAs have a long poly-U tail, and these U bases are inserted in regions of the pre-mRNA transcript at which the guide RNAs are looped. This process is entirely mediated by RNA molecules. That is, guide RNAs—rather than proteins—serve as the catalysts in RNA editing.
RNA editing is not just a phenomenon of trypanosomes. In the mitochondria of some plants, almost all pre-mRNAs are edited. RNA editing has also been identified in mammals such as rats, rabbits, and even humans. What could be the evolutionary reason for this additional step in pre-mRNA processing? One possibility is that the mitochondria, being remnants of ancient prokaryotes, have an equally ancient RNA-based method for regulating gene expression. In support of this hypothesis, edits made to pre-mRNAs differ depending on cellular conditions. Although speculative, the process of RNA editing may be a holdover from a primordial time when RNA molecules, instead of proteins, were responsible for catalyzing reactions.