The selective degradation of mRNAs by the nonsense-mediated decay pathway is a quality control process with important consequences for human disease. From initial studies using RNA hairpin-tagged mRNAs for purification of messenger ribonucleoproteins assembled on transcripts with HIV-1 3' untranslated region (3'UTR) sequences, we uncover a two-step mechanism for Upf1-dependent degradation of mRNAs with long 3'UTRs. We demonstrate that Upf1 associates with mRNAs in a 3'UTR length-dependent manner and is highly enriched on transcripts containing 3'UTRs known to elicit NMD. Surprisingly, Upf1 recruitment and subsequent RNA decay can be antagonized by retroviral RNA elements that promote translational readthrough. By modulating the efficiency of translation termination, recognition of long 3'UTRs by Upf1 is uncoupled from the initiation of decay. We propose a model for 3'UTR length surveillance in which equilibrium binding of Upf1 to mRNAs precedes a kinetically distinct commitment to RNA decay.
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