A global analysis of Caenorhabditis elegans operons

Nature. 2002 Jun 20;417(6891):851-4. doi: 10.1038/nature00831.


The nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans and its relatives are unique among animals in having operons. Operons are regulated multigene transcription units, in which polycistronic pre-messenger RNA (pre-mRNA coding for multiple peptides) is processed to monocistronic mRNAs. This occurs by 3' end formation and trans-splicing using the specialized SL2 small nuclear ribonucleoprotein particle for downstream mRNAs. Previously, the correlation between downstream location in an operon and SL2 trans-splicing has been strong, but anecdotal. Although only 28 operons have been reported, the complete sequence of the C. elegans genome reveals numerous gene clusters. To determine how many of these clusters represent operons, we probed full-genome microarrays for SL2-containing mRNAs. We found significant enrichment for about 1,200 genes, including most of a group of several hundred genes represented by complementary DNAs that contain SL2 sequence. Analysis of their genomic arrangements indicates that >90% are downstream genes, falling in 790 distinct operons. Our evidence indicates that the genome contains at least 1,000 operons, 2 8 genes long, that contain about 15% of all C. elegans genes. Numerous examples of co-transcription of genes encoding functionally related proteins are evident. Inspection of the operon list should reveal previously unknown functional relationships.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / genetics*
  • Gene Expression Regulation*
  • Genes, Helminth / genetics*
  • Genome
  • Genomics*
  • Humans
  • Multigene Family / genetics*
  • Oligonucleotide Array Sequence Analysis
  • Operon / genetics*
  • RNA, Helminth / genetics
  • RNA, Helminth / metabolism
  • RNA, Messenger / genetics
  • RNA, Messenger / metabolism
  • RNA, Spliced Leader / genetics
  • RNA, Spliced Leader / metabolism
  • Trans-Splicing / genetics


  • RNA, Helminth
  • RNA, Messenger
  • RNA, Spliced Leader