Background: The control of gene expression in eukaryotic cells occurs both transcriptionally and post-transcriptionally. Although many genes are now known to be regulated at the translational level, in general, the mechanisms are poorly understood. We have previously presented polysomal gradient and array-based evidence that translational control is widespread in a significant number of genes when yeast cells are exposed to a range of stresses. Here we have re-examined these gene sets, considering the role of UTR sequences in the translational responses of these genes using recent large-scale datasets which define 5' and 3' transcriptional ends for many yeast genes. In particular, we highlight the potential role of 5' UTRs and upstream open reading frames (uORFs).
Results: We show a highly significant enrichment in specific GO functional classes for genes that are translationally up- and down-regulated under given stresses (e.g. carbohydrate metabolism is up-regulated under amino acid starvation). Cross-referencing these data with the stress response data we show that translationally upregulated genes have longer 5' UTRs, consistent with their role in translational regulation. In the first genome-wide study of uORFs in a set of mapped 5' UTRs, we show that uORFs are rare, being statistically under-represented in UTR sequences. However, they have distinct compositional biases consistent with their putative role in translational control and are more common in genes which are apparently translationally up-regulated.
Conclusion: These results demonstrate a central regulatory role for UTR sequences, and 5' UTRs in particular, highlighting the significant role of uORFs in post-transcriptional control in yeast. Yeast uORFs are more highly conserved than has been suggested, lending further weight to their significance as functional elements involved in gene regulation. It also suggests a more complex and novel mechanism of control, whereby uORFs permit genes to escape from a more general attenuation of translation under conditions of stress. However, since uORFs are relatively rare (only ~13% of yeast genes have them) there remain many unanswered questions as to how UTR elements can direct translational control of many hundreds of genes under stress.