Nanopore sequencing reveals endogenous NMD-targeted isoforms in human cells

Genome Biol. 2021 Aug 13;22(1):223. doi: 10.1186/s13059-021-02439-3.


Background: Nonsense-mediated mRNA decay (NMD) is a eukaryotic, translation-dependent degradation pathway that targets mRNAs with premature termination codons and also regulates the expression of some mRNAs that encode full-length proteins. Although many genes express NMD-sensitive transcripts, identifying them based on short-read sequencing data remains a challenge.

Results: To identify and analyze endogenous targets of NMD, we apply cDNA Nanopore sequencing and short-read sequencing to human cells with varying expression levels of NMD factors. Our approach detects full-length NMD substrates that are highly unstable and increase in levels or even only appear when NMD is inhibited. Among the many new NMD-targeted isoforms that our analysis identifies, most derive from alternative exon usage. The isoform-aware analysis reveals many genes with significant changes in splicing but no significant changes in overall expression levels upon NMD knockdown. NMD-sensitive mRNAs have more exons in the 3΄UTR and, for those mRNAs with a termination codon in the last exon, the length of the 3΄UTR per se does not correlate with NMD sensitivity. Analysis of splicing signals reveals isoforms where NMD has been co-opted in the regulation of gene expression, though the main function of NMD seems to be ridding the transcriptome of isoforms resulting from spurious splicing events.

Conclusions: Long-read sequencing enables the identification of many novel NMD-sensitive mRNAs and reveals both known and unexpected features concerning their biogenesis and their biological role. Our data provide a highly valuable resource of human NMD transcript targets for future genomic and transcriptomic applications.

Keywords: Long-read sequencing; NMD; Nanopore sequencing; Nonsense-mediated mRNA decay; cDNA sequencing; mRNA degradation; mRNA isoforms; transcriptomics.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Carrier Proteins / genetics
  • Codon, Nonsense
  • Exons
  • Genomics
  • HeLa Cells
  • Humans
  • Nanopore Sequencing / methods*
  • Nonsense Mediated mRNA Decay*
  • Protein Isoforms / genetics*
  • RNA Splicing
  • RNA Stability
  • RNA, Messenger / genetics
  • Telomerase / genetics
  • Transcriptome


  • Carrier Proteins
  • Codon, Nonsense
  • Protein Isoforms
  • RNA, Messenger
  • SMG7 protein, human
  • Telomerase
  • SMG6 protein, human