Environment modulates protein heterogeneity through transcriptional and translational stop codon readthrough

Nat Commun. 2024 May 24;15(1):4446. doi: 10.1038/s41467-024-48387-x.


Stop codon readthrough events give rise to longer proteins, which may alter the protein's function, thereby generating short-lasting phenotypic variability from a single gene. In order to systematically assess the frequency and origin of stop codon readthrough events, we designed a library of reporters. We introduced premature stop codons into mScarlet, which enabled high-throughput quantification of protein synthesis termination errors in E. coli using fluorescent microscopy. We found that under stress conditions, stop codon readthrough may occur at rates as high as 80%, depending on the nucleotide context, suggesting that evolution frequently samples stop codon readthrough events. The analysis of selected reporters by mass spectrometry and RNA-seq showed that not only translation but also transcription errors contribute to stop codon readthrough. The RNA polymerase was more likely to misincorporate a nucleotide at premature stop codons. Proteome-wide detection of stop codon readthrough by mass spectrometry revealed that temperature regulated the expression of cryptic sequences generated by stop codon readthrough in E. coli. Overall, our findings suggest that the environment affects the accuracy of protein production, which increases protein heterogeneity when the organisms need to adapt to new conditions.

MeSH terms

  • Codon, Nonsense / genetics
  • Codon, Terminator* / genetics
  • DNA-Directed RNA Polymerases / genetics
  • DNA-Directed RNA Polymerases / metabolism
  • Escherichia coli Proteins* / genetics
  • Escherichia coli Proteins* / metabolism
  • Escherichia coli* / genetics
  • Escherichia coli* / metabolism
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Bacterial
  • Protein Biosynthesis*
  • Transcription, Genetic


  • Codon, Terminator
  • Escherichia coli Proteins
  • Codon, Nonsense
  • DNA-Directed RNA Polymerases