New universal rules of eukaryotic translation initiation fidelity

PLoS Comput Biol. 2013;9(7):e1003136. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1003136. Epub 2013 Jul 11.


The accepted model of eukaryotic translation initiation begins with the scanning of the transcript by the pre-initiation complex from the 5'end until an ATG codon with a specific nucleotide (nt) context surrounding it is recognized (Kozak rule). According to this model, ATG codons upstream to the beginning of the ORF should affect translation. We perform for the first time, a genome-wide statistical analysis, uncovering a new, more comprehensive and quantitative, set of initiation rules for improving the cost of translation and its efficiency. Analyzing dozens of eukaryotic genomes, we find that in all frames there is a universal trend of selection for low numbers of ATG codons; specifically, 16-27 codons upstream, but also 5-11 codons downstream of the START ATG, include less ATG codons than expected. We further suggest that there is selection for anti optimal ATG contexts in the vicinity of the START ATG. Thus, the efficiency and fidelity of translation initiation is encoded in the 5'UTR as required by the scanning model, but also at the beginning of the ORF. The observed nt patterns suggest that in all the analyzed organisms the pre-initiation complex often misses the START ATG of the ORF, and may start translation from an alternative initiation start-site. Thus, to prevent the translation of undesired proteins, there is selection for nucleotide sequences with low affinity to the pre-initiation complex near the beginning of the ORF. With the new suggested rules we were able to obtain a twice higher correlation with ribosomal density and protein levels in comparison to the Kozak rule alone (e.g. for protein levels r=0.7 vs. r=0.31; p<10(-12)).

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • 5' Untranslated Regions
  • Codon
  • Genome
  • Peptide Initiation Factors / genetics
  • Peptide Initiation Factors / metabolism*


  • 5' Untranslated Regions
  • Codon
  • Peptide Initiation Factors

Grant support

This study was supported in part by a fellowship from the Edmond J. Safra Center for Bioinformatics at Tel-Aviv University and by Minerva ARCHES award. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.