Regulation of translation via mRNA structure in prokaryotes and eukaryotes

Gene. 2005 Nov 21;361:13-37. doi: 10.1016/j.gene.2005.06.037. Epub 2005 Oct 5.


The mechanism of initiation of translation differs between prokaryotes and eukaryotes, and the strategies used for regulation differ accordingly. Translation in prokaryotes is usually regulated by blocking access to the initiation site. This is accomplished via base-paired structures (within the mRNA itself, or between the mRNA and a small trans-acting RNA) or via mRNA-binding proteins. Classic examples of each mechanism are described. The polycistronic structure of mRNAs is an important aspect of translational control in prokaryotes, but polycistronic mRNAs are not usable (and usually not produced) in eukaryotes. Four structural elements in eukaryotic mRNAs are important for regulating translation: (i) the m7G cap; (ii) sequences flanking the AUG start codon; (iii) the position of the AUG codon relative to the 5' end of the mRNA; and (iv) secondary structure within the mRNA leader sequence. The scanning model provides a framework for understanding these effects. The scanning mechanism also explains how small open reading frames near the 5' end of the mRNA can down-regulate translation. This constraint is sometimes abrogated by changing the structure of the mRNA, sometimes with clinical consequences. Examples are described. Some mistaken ideas about regulation of translation that have found their way into textbooks are pointed out and corrected.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Animals
  • Base Sequence
  • Codon, Initiator / genetics
  • Eukaryotic Cells / metabolism*
  • Gene Expression Regulation
  • Humans
  • Models, Biological
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Nucleic Acid Conformation
  • Peptide Initiation Factors / metabolism
  • Prokaryotic Cells / metabolism*
  • Protein Biosynthesis / genetics*
  • RNA, Messenger / chemistry
  • RNA, Messenger / genetics*


  • Codon, Initiator
  • Peptide Initiation Factors
  • RNA, Messenger