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By the end of this section, you will be able to:
  • Describe the different steps in RNA processing
  • Understand the significance of exons, introns, and splicing
  • Explain how tRNAs and rRNAs are processed

After transcription, eukaryotic pre-mRNAs must undergo several processing steps before they can be translated. Eukaryotic (and prokaryotic) tRNAs and rRNAs also undergo processing before they can function as components in the protein synthesis machinery.

Mrna processing

The eukaryotic pre-mRNA undergoes extensive processing before it is ready to be translated. The additional steps involved in eukaryotic mRNA maturation create a molecule with a much longer half-life than a prokaryotic mRNA. Eukaryotic mRNAs last for several hours, whereas the typical E. coli mRNA lasts no more than five seconds.

Pre-mRNAs are first coated in RNA-stabilizing proteins; these protect the pre-mRNA from degradation while it is processed and exported out of the nucleus. The three most important steps of pre-mRNA processing are the addition of stabilizing and signaling factors at the 5' and 3' ends of the molecule, and the removal of intervening sequences that do not specify the appropriate amino acids. In rare cases, the mRNA transcript can be “edited” after it is transcribed.

Evolution connection

Rna editing in trypanosomes

The trypanosomes are a group of protozoa that include the pathogen Trypanosoma brucei , which causes sleeping sickness in humans ( [link] ). Trypanosomes, and virtually all other eukaryotes, have organelles called mitochondria that supply the cell with chemical energy. Mitochondria are organelles that express their own DNA and are believed to be the remnants of a symbiotic relationship between a eukaryote and an engulfed prokaryote. The mitochondrial DNA of trypanosomes exhibit an interesting exception to The Central Dogma: their pre-mRNAs do not have the correct information to specify a functional protein. Usually, this is because the mRNA is missing several U nucleotides. The cell performs an additional RNA processing step called RNA editing    to remedy this.

Micrograph shows T. brucei, which has a u-shaped cell body and a long tail.
Trypanosoma brucei is the causative agent of sleeping sickness in humans. The mRNAs of this pathogen must be modified by the addition of nucleotides before protein synthesis can occur. (credit: modification of work by Torsten Ochsenreiter)

Other genes in the mitochondrial genome encode 40- to 80-nucleotide guide RNAs. One or more of these molecules interacts by complementary base pairing with some of the nucleotides in the pre-mRNA transcript. However, the guide RNA has more A nucleotides than the pre-mRNA has U nucleotides to bind with. In these regions, the guide RNA loops out. The 3' ends of guide RNAs have a long poly-U tail, and these U bases are inserted in regions of the pre-mRNA transcript at which the guide RNAs are looped. This process is entirely mediated by RNA molecules. That is, guide RNAs—rather than proteins—serve as the catalysts in RNA editing.

RNA editing is not just a phenomenon of trypanosomes. In the mitochondria of some plants, almost all pre-mRNAs are edited. RNA editing has also been identified in mammals such as rats, rabbits, and even humans. What could be the evolutionary reason for this additional step in pre-mRNA processing? One possibility is that the mitochondria, being remnants of ancient prokaryotes, have an equally ancient RNA-based method for regulating gene expression. In support of this hypothesis, edits made to pre-mRNAs differ depending on cellular conditions. Although speculative, the process of RNA editing may be a holdover from a primordial time when RNA molecules, instead of proteins, were responsible for catalyzing reactions.

Questions & Answers

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Poukaryotic cell and euakaryotic cell
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Origin and Diversity of higher plants
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Source:  OpenStax, Biology. OpenStax CNX. Feb 29, 2016 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11448/1.10
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