Alternative polyadenylation (APA) is emerging as a widespread mechanism used to control gene expression. Like alternative splicing, usage of alternative poly(A) sites allows a single gene to encode multiple mRNA transcripts. In some cases, this changes the mRNA coding potential; in other cases, the code remains unchanged but the 3' UTR length is altered, influencing the fate of mRNAs in several ways, for example, by altering the availability of RNA binding protein sites and microRNA binding sites. The mechanisms governing both global and gene-specific APA are only starting to be deciphered. Here we review what is known about these mechanisms and the functional consequences of alternative polyadenylation.
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