SciCombinator

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Concept: Genetic code

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Deep sequencing now provides detailed snapshots of ribosome occupancy on mRNAs. We leverage these data to parameterize a computational model of translation, keeping track of every ribosome, tRNA, and mRNA molecule in a yeast cell. We determine the parameter regimes in which fast initiation or high codon bias in a transgene increases protein yield and infer the initiation rates of endogenous Saccharomyces cerevisiae genes, which vary by several orders of magnitude and correlate with 5' mRNA folding energies. Our model recapitulates the previously reported 5'-to-3' ramp of decreasing ribosome densities, although our analysis shows that this ramp is caused by rapid initiation of short genes rather than slow codons at the start of transcripts. We conclude that protein production in healthy yeast cells is typically limited by the availability of free ribosomes, whereas protein production under periods of stress can sometimes be rescued by reducing initiation or elongation rates.

Concepts: Protein, Cell nucleus, RNA, Ribosome, Yeast, Messenger RNA, Protein biosynthesis, Genetic code

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Our understanding of translation underpins our capacity to engineer living systems. The canonical start codon (AUG) and a few near-cognates (GUG, UUG) are considered as the ‘start codons’ for translation initiation in Escherichia coli. Translation is typically not thought to initiate from the 61 remaining codons. Here, we quantified translation initiation of green fluorescent protein and nanoluciferase in E. coli from all 64 triplet codons and across a range of DNA copy number. We detected initiation of protein synthesis above measurement background for 47 codons. Translation from non-canonical start codons ranged from 0.007 to 3% relative to translation from AUG. Translation from 17 non-AUG codons exceeded the highest reported rates of non-cognate codon recognition. Translation initiation from non-canonical start codons may contribute to the synthesis of peptides in both natural and synthetic biological systems.

Concepts: DNA, Protein, Gene, Amino acid, Escherichia coli, Protein biosynthesis, Genetic code, Peptide synthesis

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Circular RNAs (circRNAs) are abundant and evolutionarily conserved RNAs of largely unknown function. Here, we show that a subset of circRNAs is translated in vivo. By performing ribosome footprinting from fly heads, we demonstrate that a group of circRNAs is associated with translating ribosomes. Many of these ribo-circRNAs use the start codon of the hosting mRNA, are bound by membrane-associated ribosomes, and have evolutionarily conserved termination codons. In addition, we found that a circRNA generated from the muscleblind locus encodes a protein, which we detected in fly head extracts by mass spectrometry. Next, by performing in vivo and in vitro translation assays, we show that UTRs of ribo-circRNAs (cUTRs) allow cap-independent translation. Moreover, we found that starvation and FOXO likely regulate the translation of a circMbl isoform. Altogether, our study provides strong evidence for translation of circRNAs, revealing the existence of an unexplored layer of gene activity.

Concepts: DNA, Protein, Gene, RNA, Ribosome, Protein biosynthesis, Genetic code, Transfer RNA

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Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are increasingly used in research and industrial systems to produce high-value pharmaceuticals, fuels and chemicals. Genetic isolation and intrinsic biocontainment would provide essential biosafety measures to secure these closed systems and enable safe applications of GMOs in open systems, which include bioremediation and probiotics. Although safeguards have been designed to control cell growth by essential gene regulation, inducible toxin switches and engineered auxotrophies, these approaches are compromised by cross-feeding of essential metabolites, leaked expression of essential genes, or genetic mutations. Here we describe the construction of a series of genomically recoded organisms (GROs) whose growth is restricted by the expression of multiple essential genes that depend on exogenously supplied synthetic amino acids (sAAs). We introduced a Methanocaldococcus jannaschii tRNA:aminoacyl-tRNA synthetase pair into the chromosome of a GRO derived from Escherichia coli that lacks all TAG codons and release factor 1, endowing this organism with the orthogonal translational components to convert TAG into a dedicated sense codon for sAAs. Using multiplex automated genome engineering, we introduced in-frame TAG codons into 22 essential genes, linking their expression to the incorporation of synthetic phenylalanine-derived amino acids. Of the 60 sAA-dependent variants isolated, a notable strain harbouring three TAG codons in conserved functional residues of MurG, DnaA and SerS and containing targeted tRNA deletions maintained robust growth and exhibited undetectable escape frequencies upon culturing ∼10(11) cells on solid media for 7 days or in liquid media for 20 days. This is a significant improvement over existing biocontainment approaches. We constructed synthetic auxotrophs dependent on sAAs that were not rescued by cross-feeding in environmental growth assays. These auxotrophic GROs possess alternative genetic codes that impart genetic isolation by impeding horizontal gene transfer and now depend on the use of synthetic biochemical building blocks, advancing orthogonal barriers between engineered organisms and the environment.

Concepts: DNA, Gene, Genetics, Gene expression, Bacteria, Organism, Horizontal gene transfer, Genetic code

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Synonymous single nucleotide polymorphisms (sSNPs) are considered neutral for protein function, as by definition they exchange only codons, not amino acids. We identified an sSNP that modifies the local translation speed of the cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR), leading to detrimental changes to protein stability and function. This sSNP introduces a codon pairing to a low-abundance tRNA that is particularly rare in human bronchial epithelia, but not in other human tissues, suggesting tissue-specific effects of this sSNP. Up-regulation of the tRNA cognate to the mutated codon counteracts the effects of the sSNP and rescues protein conformation and function. Our results highlight the wide-ranging impact of sSNPs, which invert the programmed local speed of mRNA translation and provide direct evidence for the central role of cellular tRNA levels in mediating the actions of sSNPs in a tissue-specific manner.

Concepts: DNA, Protein, Amino acid, RNA, Ribosome, Protein biosynthesis, Genetic code, Transfer RNA

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Phosphorylation of the α-subunit of initiation factor 2 (eIF2) controls protein synthesis by a conserved mechanism. In metazoa, distinct stress conditions activate different eIF2α kinases (PERK, PKR, GCN2, and HRI) that converge on phosphorylating a unique serine in eIF2α. This collection of signaling pathways is termed the ‘integrated stress response’ (ISR). eIF2α phosphorylation diminishes protein synthesis, while allowing preferential translation of some mRNAs. Starting with a cell-based screen for inhibitors of PERK signaling, we identified a small molecule, named ISRIB, that potently (IC50 = 5 nM) reverses the effects of eIF2α phosphorylation. ISRIB reduces the viability of cells subjected to PERK-activation by chronic endoplasmic reticulum stress. eIF2α phosphorylation is implicated in memory consolidation. Remarkably, ISRIB-treated mice display significant enhancement in spatial and fear-associated learning. Thus, memory consolidation is inherently limited by the ISR, and ISRIB releases this brake. As such, ISRIB promises to contribute to our understanding and treatment of cognitive disorders. DOI:http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.00498.001.

Concepts: Protein, Gene expression, Signal transduction, Ribosome, Endoplasmic reticulum, Messenger RNA, Protein biosynthesis, Genetic code

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Macropinocytosis is a highly conserved endocytic process by which extracellular fluid and its contents are internalized into cells through large, heterogeneous vesicles known as macropinosomes. Oncogenic Ras proteins have been shown to stimulate macropinocytosis but the functional contribution of this uptake mechanism to the transformed phenotype remains unknown. Here we show that Ras-transformed cells use macropinocytosis to transport extracellular protein into the cell. The internalized protein undergoes proteolytic degradation, yielding amino acids including glutamine that can enter central carbon metabolism. Accordingly, the dependence of Ras-transformed cells on free extracellular glutamine for growth can be suppressed by the macropinocytic uptake of protein. Consistent with macropinocytosis representing an important route of nutrient uptake in tumours, its pharmacological inhibition compromises the growth of Ras-transformed pancreatic tumour xenografts. These results identify macropinocytosis as a mechanism by which cancer cells support their unique metabolic needs and point to the possible exploitation of this process in the design of anticancer therapies.

Concepts: Protein, Gene, Cancer, Amino acid, Acid, Metabolism, Nutrition, Genetic code

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Advances in whole-genome and whole-transcriptome amplification have permitted the sequencing of the minute amounts of DNA and RNA present in a single cell, offering a window into the extent and nature of genomic and transcriptomic heterogeneity which occurs in both normal development and disease. Single-cell approaches stand poised to revolutionise our capacity to understand the scale of genomic, epigenomic, and transcriptomic diversity that occurs during the lifetime of an individual organism. Here, we review the major technological and biological breakthroughs achieved, describe the remaining challenges to overcome, and provide a glimpse into the promise of recent and future developments.

Concepts: DNA, Gene, Genetics, Bacteria, Molecular biology, Organism, Genome, Genetic code

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OBJECTIVE: Cryptogenic multifocal ulcerating stenosing enteritis (CMUSE) is an extremely rare, but devastating, disease of unknown aetiology. We investigated the genetic basis of this autosomal recessive condition in a pair of affected siblings who have 40-year histories of catastrophic gastrointestinal and extraintestinal disease. DESIGN: Genome-wide single-nucleotide polymorphism homozygosity mapping in the two affected family members combined with whole-exome sequencing of one affected sibling. This was followed by confirmatory Sanger sequencing of the likely disease-causing sequence variant and functional studies in affected and unaffected family members. RESULTS: Insertion/deletion variation analysis revealed the presence of a homozygous 4 bp deletion (g.155574_77delGTAA) in the PLA2G4A gene, located in the splice donor site directly after exon 17 (the penultimate exon) of the gene in both affected siblings. This introduces a frameshift of 10 amino acids before a premature stop codon (p.V707fsX10), which is predicted to result in the loss of 43 amino acids (residues 707-749) at the C-terminus of cytosolic phospholipase A2-α (cPLA(2)α). cPLA(2)α protein expression was undetectable in the gut of both siblings, with platelet aggregation and thromboxane A(2) production, as functional assays for cPLA(2)α activity, grossly impaired. CONCLUSIONS: We have identified mutations in PLA2G4A as a cause of CMUSE in two affected siblings. Further studies are needed to determine if mutations in this gene are also responsible for disease of a similar phenotype in other cases.

Concepts: DNA, Protein, Gene, Genetics, Amino acid, Chromosome, Genetic code, Stop codon

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IRE1α, the most conserved transducer of the unfolded protein response, plays critical roles in many biological processes and cell fate decisions. Reporting in Science, Upton et al. (2012) broadened our understanding of IRE1α as a cell-death executioner, showing that upon ER stress, IRE1α degrades microRNAs to promote translation of caspase-2.

Concepts: DNA, Proteins, Gene, Enzyme, Cell biology, Genetic code, Unfolded protein response, Sword