Upstream open reading frames (uORFs) are common in eukaryotic transcripts, but those that encode conserved peptides occur in less than 1% of transcripts. The peptides encoded by three plant conserved peptide uORF (CPuORF) families are known to control translation of the downstream ORF in response to a small signal molecule (sucrose, polyamines, and phosphocholine). In flowering plants, transcription factors are statistically over-represented among genes that possess CPuORFs, and in general it appeared that many CPuORF genes also had other regulatory functions, though the significance of this suggestion was uncertain (Hayden and Jorgensen, 2007). Five years later the literature provides much more information on the functions of many CPuORF genes. Here we reassess the functions of 27 known CPuORF gene families and find that 22 of these families play a variety of different regulatory roles, from transcriptional control to protein turnover, and from small signal molecules to signal transduction kinases. Clearly then, there is indeed a strong association of CPuORFs with regulatory genes. In addition, 16 of these families play key roles in a variety of different biological processes. Most strikingly, the core sucrose response network includes three different CPuORFs, creating the potential for sophisticated balancing of the network in response to three different molecular inputs. We propose that the function of most CPuORFs is to modulate translation of a downstream major ORF (mORF) in response to a signal molecule recognized by the conserved peptide and that because the mORFs of CPuORF genes generally encode regulatory proteins, many of them centrally important in the biology of plants, CPuORFs play key roles in balancing such regulatory networks.
Keywords: dicistronic transcripts; gene regulation; peptoswitch; polyamine signaling; regulatory networks; sucrose signaling; threhalose signaling; translational control.