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.
© 2021. The Author(s).