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RNA. 2011 May;17(5):843-54. doi: 10.1261/rna.2401811. Epub 2011 Mar 9.

Mechanism of escape from nonsense-mediated mRNA decay of human beta-globin transcripts with nonsense mutations in the first exon.

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Department of Pediatric Oncology, Hematology and Immunology, University of Heidelberg, Heidelberg, Germany.


The degradation of nonsense-mutated β-globin mRNA by nonsense-mediated mRNA decay (NMD) limits the synthesis of C-terminally truncated dominant negative β-globin chains and thus protects the majority of heterozygotes from symptomatic β-thalassemia. β-globin mRNAs with nonsense mutations in the first exon are known to bypass NMD, although current mechanistic models predict that such mutations should activate NMD. A systematic analysis of this enigma reveals that (1) β-globin exon 1 is bisected by a sharp border that separates NMD-activating from NMD-bypassing nonsense mutations and (2) the ability to bypass NMD depends on the ability to reinitiate translation at a downstream start codon. The data presented here thus reconcile the current mechanistic understanding of NMD with the observed failure of a class of nonsense mutations to activate this important mRNA quality-control pathway. Furthermore, our data uncover a reason why the position of a nonsense mutation alone does not suffice to predict the fate of the affected mRNA and its effect on protein expression.

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