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Translational Regulation

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Translational Regulation

Every cell in our body contains the same DNA, so why do they appear and work so differently from each other? Why do we have muscle cells and skin cells, and not only one type of cell? This is because not all the proteins our DNA codes for are synthesised in each cell. This is due to the regulation of transcription and translation, which controls the levels of proteins that are made from messenger RNA (mRNA).

It may help to go over our "Protein Synthesis" article to remind yourself of the process!

Transcriptional vs. translational regulation

Transcription describes the process of transcribing a segment of DNA that encodes a particular gene onto mRNA. This mRNA serves as a template for producing proteins, which occurs through translation.

The whole process of protein synthesis needs to be regulated. Translation regulation is particularly important in maintaining homeostasis, controlling cell proliferation, growth and development, as well as defining the proteome. Many diseases result from issues with translational regulation, so by understanding the process, we can get one step closer to curing some diseases. The different types of gene regulation are explained in the table below.

Type of regulation

Description

Transcriptional

Regulates which genes are transcribed into mRNA

Post-transcriptional

Controls how available the mRNA is to ribosomes

Translational

Controls the time it takes for mRNA to be translated into a protein

Post-translational

Controls how long and when proteins will be functional as well as protein modifications

Table 1. The different methods for regulating gene expression.

You can learn more about regulation during transcription in our article Transcriptional Regulation.

Epigenetic regulation occurs at the transcriptional level. This describes gene regulation by altering the availability of DNA to RNA polymerase through processes such as DNA methylation and histone modifications. This means that this type of regulation does not alter the original DNA sequence. You can learn more about this process in our article Epigenetics!

Translation regulation in eukaryotes vs. prokaryotes

In cells, metabolic activity is controlled by regulating which genes are transcribed and translated, as well as when this occurs. Only part of an organism's genome is translated. This is important as it allows cells to express only particular proteins and therefore allows them to become highly specialised.

Gene regulation is fundamentally the same in prokaryotes and eukaryotes. However, the stimuli that cause the changes in gene expression and the responses are more complex in eukaryotes. This is because eukaryotes are multicellular organisms with more organelles and a larger genome than prokaryotes. As a result, they need to respond to changes in both their external and internal environment.

Translation regulation in prokaryotes

Prokaryotes are single-celled organisms with DNA floating free in the cytoplasm. This is because they lack membrane-bound organelles, such as the nucleus. During the whole protein synthesis process, transcription and translation occur simultaneously. When the protein produced is no longer needed, transcription stops.

Bacteria can respond to changes in the environment because of gene regulation. They only express genes when the particular protein is needed, and this prevents vital resources from being wasted. This means that prokaryotic regulation mainly occurs through transcriptional regulation. When more protein is required, more transcription occurs.

In prokaryotes, the process of translation occurs simultaneously in the cytoplasm, which creates a rapid response to environmental cues such as increased nutrient content of the cell.

Translation regulation in eukaryotes

Eukaryotes are highly complex in comparison to prokaryotes. In eukaryotic cells, DNA is contained inside the nucleus. As DNA is too large to leave the nucleus, it must be transcribed into mRNA to enter the cytoplasm. Here, the ribosomes translate the mRNA into a protein.

Transcription and translation are separated due to the presence of membrane-bound organelles. This means that transcription only occurs in the confines of the nucleus, and translation occurs only in the cytoplasm. The regulation of gene expression occurs throughout the whole process until protein synthesis. Translational regulation occurs:

  • When the RNA is translated into a protein (translational regulation)
  • After the protein is produced (post-translational regulation)

Types of translational regulation

Once transcription is completed, and the mRNA has left the nucleus, it may or may not be translated to make proteins. The lifespan of the mRNA determines this. Additionally, how readily the mRNA can be attached to the ribosome influences how much protein is synthesized.

Some mRNA's are not translated as they are needed in their RNA form. These are called non-coding RNA (ncRNA). Although not transcribed into proteins, they are still fully functional and necessary. For example, transfer RNAs (tRNAs) and ribosomal RNAs (rRNAs) are ncRNAs that are needed in protein synthesis!

RNA interference (RNAi)

RNAi is a form of translational regulation in which sequence-specific RNAs control mRNA lifespan.

For RNAi to take place, short regulatory RNA molecules are transcribed from a cell's DNA. There are two main types:

  • Micro-RNA (miRNA)

  • Small-interfering RNA (siRNA)

miRNAs are single-stranded and not specific to an mRNA sequence, while siRNAs are double-stranded and highly specific to a particular mRNA sequence. When these molecules bind to particular proteins in the cytoplasm, they form a complex called an RNA-induced silencing complex (RISC). Once bound to mRNA, the RISC can either hydrolyse it by using the enzyme RNA hydrolase or prevent ribosomes from attaching to the mRNA, therefore preventing translation.

Below are the steps of RNAi:

  • The mRNA leaves the nucleus once it has been transcribed and enters the cytoplasm.

  • Double-stranded siRNA is synthesised and enters the cytoplasm. siRNA has a specific base sequence that is complementary to the target mRNA.

  • One strand of the siRNA binds to RISC. This complex now acts as an enzyme.

  • The siRNA can now bind to the target mRNA by complementary base pairing.

  • The mRNAs phosphodiester bonds are hydrolysed and cleaved.

The protein Argonaute, contained within RISC, is responsible for mRNA cleavage.

mRNA 5' capping

An altered nucleotide, termed a cap, is added to the 5' end of mRNA. This is extremely important in creating mature mRNA because only mature mRNA can bind to ribosomes. Capping ensures the stability of mRNA during translation and helps the mRNA bind to ribosomes.

The 5' cap has four main functions:

  1. Prevents degradation of mRNA by exonucleases
  2. Promotes translation
  3. Regulates nuclear export of mRNA
  4. Promotes intron excision

The removal of introns from mRNA allows the cell to synthesise different protein types from the same transcript. This process is called RNA splicing and is regulated by enzymatic complexes called spliceosomes. Splicing is a type of post-transcriptional regulation.

Post-translational regulation

This type of regulation occurs after the protein has been synthesised. The modifications made to the newly synthesised proteins can alter their function and, therefore, control the level of active proteins. For example, protein kinases can phosphorylate proteins to activate them.

Phosphorylation describes the addition of a phosphate group. This reaction is catalysed by protein kinases.

Additionally, the level of active proteins is also regulated by degradation! Ubiquitin, a 76 amino acid protein, can 'tag' proteins to control which proteins need to be degraded by a complex called the proteasome. The process of adding ubiquitin is known as ubiquitination, and it is a highly regulated pathway.

Diseases caused by defects in translational and post-translational modification

It is becoming increasingly clear that defects with translation have consequences that relate to a variety of diseases. These include:

  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Neurodegeneration
  • Mitochondrial myopathy
  • Encephalopathy
  • Lactic acidosis
  • Stroke-like episodes
  • Parkinson's disease
  • Cancer

Many genes associated with cancer are regulated by miRNA. Therefore, the dysregulation of miRNA expression increases the risk of disease development.

The miRNA cluster, miR-17-92, composed of 6 different miRNAs, is involved in cell proliferation and apoptosis resistance. The over-expression of miR-17-92 has been observed in breast, pancreas, and prostate cancer. This is because the presence of too many miRNAs leads to a proliferative disorder, allowing cells to divide uncontrollably!

The proteome and genome

Recall that a gene is a length of DNA that codes for a protein. When we talk about the genome, we are referring to all the genes that are present in a cell. However, not every gene is expressed because different cells have different functions and require different proteins!

On the other hand, the proteome describes the full range of proteins that a particular cell can contain. Each gene can produce multiple different protein types, meaning the proteome is generally larger than the genome.

The genome describes all of the genes present in a cell. The proteome describes the full range of proteins that a cell can produce.

Scientists can study the human proteome and genome to understand gene function and interaction.

The Human Genome Project (HGP) was an international, collaborative research programme that sequenced our genome. It found that our genome was over 3 billion base pairs long. The project has been very useful in cure development and studying genes that lead to the development of certain diseases. An example of this is genes that are linked to an increased risk of certain cancer. Thanks to the HGP, we now know that if an individual's BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are mutated, they are more likely to develop breast cancer. This can allow us to put early diagnostic measures in place.

Translational Regulation - Key takeaways

  • Translational regulation describes the control of protein expression after the synthesis of mRNA.
  • Translational regulation includes RNAi, which describes the action of miRNA and siRNA in preventing translation.
  • Post-translational regulation includes modifying the structure of proteins, such as phosphorylation, and controlling the level of protein degradation via ubiquitination.
  • Errors during translation increase the risk of development, such as cancer.

Frequently Asked Questions about Translational Regulation

Translational regulation includes RNAi. Post-translational regulation includes altering the level of active proteins present via protein modifications, such as phosphorylation, and ubiquitination.

Translational regulation ensures only particular proteins are synthesised. This allows cells to be highly specialised and carry out specialised functions. It also prevents the presence and build-up of unnecessary proteins in the cell.

Translation needs to be highly regulated as certain cells need particular proteins for their function. If translation is left unchecked, there could be a build-up of unnecessary proteins and lack of necessary proteins!

Translational regulation includes RNAi via miRNA and siRNA. Post-translational regulation includes protein modification and ubiquitination.

Proteins are regulated after translation by altering their structure for activation and controlling their degradation. 


For example, protein phosphorylation via protein kinases can activate enzymes. Additionally, ubiquitination regulates the degradation of proteins. 

Final Translational Regulation Quiz

Question

How could epigenetic changes affect humans?

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Answer

They could cause disease, either by inhibiting or activating a gene.

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Question

What effect do different genes in a cell being expressed have?


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Answer

Different proteins are made and these proteins modify the cell.

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Question

Describe the process of RNA interference.


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Answer

RNA molecules inhibit gene expression, by destroying mRNA so that it cannot be translated.

Show question

Question

Why does the structure and function of different cells vary in an organism?


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Answer

Not all the genes in a cell are expressed.

Show question

Question

Describe RNA interference using siRNA.


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Answer

mRNA leaves the nucleus once it has been transcribed and enters the cytoplasm.

  • Double-stranded RNA cut using enzymes.

  • Each small section is called siRNA.

  • siRNA has a specific base sequence that is complementary to the target mRNA.

  • One strand of the siRNA binds to a protein (RISC) which then acts as an enzyme. 

  • The siRNA can now bind to the mRNA molecule by complementary base pairing.

  • The mRNAs phosphodiester bonds are hydrolysed.

  • The mRNA can no longer be used in translation and is broken down by the nuclease enzyme. 

Show question

Question

What is the 5' cap?

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Answer

an altered nucleotide at the 5' end of mRNA

Show question

Question

What are the 4 functions of the 5' cap?

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Answer

1. Prevention of degradation by exonucleases.

2. Promotes translation.

3. Regulates nuclear export.

4. Promotes 5' proximal intron removal

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Question

How may translational regulation cause cancer?


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Answer

By altered expression of micro RNA (miRNA)

Show question

Question

What is micro RNA?

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Answer

A single stranded, non-coding form of RNA.

Show question

Question

What does transcriptional regulation do?

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Answer

Regulates which genes are transcribed into mRNA

Show question

Question

What does post-transcriptional regulation do?

Show answer

Answer

Controls how available the mRNA is to ribosomes

Show question

Question

What does translational regulation do?

Show answer

Answer

Controls the time it takes for mRNA to be translated into a protein

Show question

Question

What does post-translational regulation do?

Show answer

Answer

Controls how long and when proteins will be functional as well as protein modifications

Show question

Question

Identify two mechanisms of translational regulation.

Show answer

Answer

RNA interference. 

5' mRNA capping.

Show question

Question

Identify the two short regulatory RNA molecules involved in translation regulation.

Show answer

Answer

Micro-RNA. Small-interfering RNA.

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