Enhanced Technique Unveils Widespread Hidden Gene Activity in Plants

Jim Crocker
28th February, 2024

Enhanced Technique Unveils Widespread Hidden Gene Activity in Plants

Image Source: Natural Science News, 2024

Key Findings

  • Scientists at Michigan State University found hidden genetic messages in plants that affect protein production
  • These hidden messages include short sequences that can strongly control when and how proteins are made
  • The discovery could help improve crops by manipulating these sequences for better growth and stress response
Understanding how plants grow and respond to their environment is a complex puzzle, with each gene playing a role like a piece in a vast jigsaw. Scientists at Michigan State University have made a significant leap in solving part of this puzzle by focusing on a process called translation—the step where genetic information is converted into proteins, the workhorses of the cell[1]. This research builds upon earlier studies that have shown translation to be a key regulator in plant development and stress responses[2]. Translation occurs when molecular machines called ribosomes read the genetic code carried by messenger RNA (mRNA) and use it to assemble proteins. However, not all parts of the mRNA are translated into proteins. Some regions, known as open reading frames (ORFs), are like hidden messages within the genetic code that can be overlooked. The Michigan State University team has developed a technique to uncover these hidden messages, revealing a wealth of uncharacterized translation events in the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana. The study's breakthrough lies in its use of super-resolution ribosome profiling (Ribo-seq), a method that tracks the ribosome's movement across mRNA, to identify ORFs that were previously undetected. The researchers discovered 7,751 unconventional translation events, including those occurring in regions previously thought to be noncoding. This finding echoes the discoveries in cotton and wheat, where small ORFs and long non-coding RNAs were found to play roles in plant development and stress responses[3][4]. Proteomic data, which analyze the set of proteins present in a cell, confirmed that these unannotated regions do indeed produce stable proteins. This suggests that the genetic code is more complex than previously thought, with many potential functions hidden in these overlooked sequences. The study also found evidence of active translation in primary transcripts of small RNAs, which are molecules that can regulate gene expression, and identified ribosome stalling that supports the idea of cotranslational decay—a process where proteins are broken down as they are being made. One of the most intriguing aspects of the study is the identification of extremely short uORFs, some consisting of only two to ten amino acids. These tiny sequences were found to exert strong translational repression, meaning they can prevent the production of proteins from the main ORF, which could have significant implications for how genes are regulated. This adds a new layer of complexity to the regulation of gene expression, as these short sequences can have a big impact on a plant's biology. The researchers also discovered that many uORFs are regulated by alternative splicing, a process that allows a single gene to produce multiple protein variants. This suggests that the control of protein production can be fine-tuned at the level of translation, depending on the specific needs of the plant. This finding is particularly exciting as it opens up new avenues for crop improvement by manipulating these regulatory sequences to enhance desirable traits. The study from Michigan State University not only expands our understanding of the translational landscape in plants but also provides a valuable resource for future research. By identifying these previously hidden elements of the genetic code, scientists can now explore new ways to modify plant growth and responses to environmental challenges. This research represents a significant step forward in functional genomics, offering new tools and insights that could ultimately lead to more resilient and productive crops.

BiotechGeneticsPlant Science


Main Study

1) Improved super-resolution ribosome profiling reveals prevalent translation of upstream ORFs and small ORFs in Arabidopsis.

Published 26th February, 2024


Related Studies

2) What, where, and how: Regulation of translation and the translational landscape in plants.


3) Transcriptional and translational landscape fine-tune genome annotation and explores translation control in cotton.


4) The translational landscape of bread wheat during grain development.


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