In eukaryotes, poly(A) tails are present on almost every mRNA. Early experiments led to the hypothesis that poly(A) tails and the cytoplasmic polyadenylate-binding protein (PABPC) promote translation and prevent mRNA degradation, but the details remained unclear. More recent data suggest that the role of poly(A) tails is much more complex: poly(A)-binding protein can stimulate poly(A) tail removal (deadenylation) and the poly(A) tails of stable, highly translated mRNAs at steady state are much shorter than expected. Furthermore, the rate of translation elongation affects deadenylation. Consequently, the interplay between poly(A) tails, PABPC, translation and mRNA decay has a major role in gene regulation. In this Review, we discuss recent work that is revolutionizing our understanding of the roles of poly(A) tails in the cytoplasm. Specifically, we discuss the roles of poly(A) tails in translation and control of mRNA stability and how poly(A) tails are removed by exonucleases (deadenylases), including CCR4-NOT and PAN2-PAN3. We also discuss how deadenylation rate is determined, the integration of deadenylation with other cellular processes and the function of PABPC. We conclude with an outlook for the future of research in this field.
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