Messenger RNA

The "life cycle" of an mRNA in a eukaryotic cell. RNA is transcribed in the nucleus; after processing, it is transported to the cytoplasm and translated by the ribosome. Finally, the mRNA is degraded.

Messenger RNA (mRNA) is a large family of RNA molecules that convey genetic information from DNA to the ribosome, where they specify the amino acid sequence of the protein products of gene expression. RNA polymerase transcribes primary transcript mRNA (known as pre-mRNA) into processed, mature mRNA. This mature mRNA is then translated into a polymer of amino acids: a protein, as summarized in the central dogma of molecular biology.

As in DNA, mRNA genetic information is in the sequence of nucleotides, which are arranged into codons consisting of three base pairs each. Each codon encodes for a specific amino acid, except the stop codons, which terminate protein synthesis. This process of translation of codons into amino acids requires two other types of RNA: Transfer RNA (tRNA), that mediates recognition of the codon and provides the corresponding amino acid, and ribosomal RNA (rRNA), that is the central component of the ribosome's protein-manufacturing machinery.

The existence of mRNA was first suggested by Jacques Monod and François Jacob, and subsequently discovered by Jacob, Sydney Brenner and Matthew Meselson at the California Institute of Technology in 1961.

It should not be confused with mitochondrial DNA.

Synthesis, processing and function

The brief existence of an mRNA molecule begins with transcription, and ultimately ends in degradation. During its life, an mRNA molecule may also be processed, edited, and transported prior to translation. Eukaryotic mRNA molecules often require extensive processing and transport, while prokaryotic mRNA molecules do not. A molecule of eukaryotic mRNA and the proteins surrounding it are together called a messenger RNP.


Transcription is when RNA is made from DNA. During transcription, RNA polymerase makes a copy of a gene from the DNA to mRNA as needed. This process is similar in eukaryotes and prokaryotes. One notable difference, however, is that eukaryotic RNA polymerase associates with mRNA-processing enzymes during transcription so that processing can proceed quickly after the start of transcription. The short-lived, unprocessed or partially processed product is termed precursor mRNA, or pre-mRNA; once completely processed, it is termed mature mRNA.

Eukaryotic pre-mRNA processing

Processing of mRNA differs greatly among eukaryotes, bacteria, and archea. Non-eukaryotic mRNA is, in essence, mature upon transcription and requires no processing, except in rare cases. Eukaryotic pre-mRNA, however, requires extensive processing.

5' cap addition

A 5' cap (also termed an RNA cap, an RNA 7-methylguanosine cap, or an RNA m7G cap) is a modified guanine nucleotide that has been added to the "front" or 5' end of a eukaryotic messenger RNA shortly after the start of transcription. The 5' cap consists of a terminal 7-methylguanosine residue that is linked through a 5'-5'-triphosphate bond to the first transcribed nucleotide. Its presence is critical for recognition by the ribosome and protection from RNases.

Cap addition is coupled to transcription, and occurs co-transcriptionally, such that each influences the other. Shortly after the start of transcription, the 5' end of the mRNA being synthesized is bound by a cap-synthesizing complex associated with RNA polymerase. This enzymatic complex catalyzes the chemical reactions that are required for mRNA capping. Synthesis proceeds as a multi-step biochemical reaction.


In some instances, an mRNA will be edited, changing the nucleotide composition of that mRNA. An example in humans is the apolipoprotein B mRNA, which is edited in some tissues, but not others. The editing creates an early stop codon, which, upon translation, produces a shorter protein.


Polyadenylation is the covalent linkage of a polyadenylyl moiety to a messenger RNA molecule. In eukaryotic organisms most messenger RNA (mRNA) molecules are polyadenylated at the 3' end, but recent studies have shown that short stretches of uridine (oligouridylation) are also common.[1] The poly(A) tail and the protein bound to it aid in protecting mRNA from degradation by exonucleases. Polyadenylation is also important for transcription termination, export of the mRNA from the nucleus, and translation. mRNA can also be polyadenylated in prokaryotic organisms, where poly(A) tails act to facilitate, rather than impede, exonucleolytic degradation.

Polyadenylation occurs during and/or immediately after transcription of DNA into RNA. After transcription has been terminated, the mRNA chain is cleaved through the action of an endonuclease complex associated with RNA polymerase. After the mRNA has been cleaved, around 250 adenosine residues are added to the free 3' end at the cleavage site. This reaction is catalyzed by polyadenylate polymerase. Just as in alternative splicing, there can be more than one polyadenylation variant of an mRNA.

Polyadenylation site mutations also occur. The primary RNA transcript of a gene is cleaved at the poly-A addition site, and 100-200 A's are added to the 3’ end of the RNA. If this site is altered, an abnormally long and unstable mRNA construct will be formed.


Another difference between eukaryotes and prokaryotes is mRNA transport. Because eukaryotic transcription and translation is compartmentally separated, eukaryotic mRNAs must be exported from the nucleus to the cytoplasm—a process that may be regulated by different signaling pathways.[2] Mature mRNAs are recognized by their processed modifications and then exported through the nuclear pore by binding to the cap-binding proteins CBP20 and CBP80,[3] as well as the transcription/export complex (TREX).[4][5] Multiple mRNA export pathways have been identified in eukaryotes.[6]

In spatially complex cells, some mRNAs are transported to particular subcellar destinations. In mature neurons, certain mRNA are transported from the soma to dendrites. One site of mRNA translation is at polyribosomes selectively localized beneath synapses.[7] The mRNA for Arc/Arg3.1 is induced by synaptic activity and localizes selectively near active synapses based on signals generated by NMDA receptors.[8] Other mRNAs also move into dendrites in response to external stimuli, such as β-actin mRNA.[9] Upon export from the nucleus, actin mRNA associates with ZBP1 and the 40S subunit. The complex is bound by a motor protein and is transported to the target location (neurite extension) along the cytoskeleton. Eventually ZBP1 is phosphorylated by Src in order for translation to be initiated.[10] In developing neurons, mRNAs are also transported into growing axons and especially growth cones. Many mRNAs are marked with so-called "zip codes," which target their transport to a specific location.[11]


Because prokaryotic mRNA does not need to be processed or transported, translation by the ribosome can begin immediately after the end of transcription. Therefore, it can be said that prokaryotic translation is coupled to transcription and occurs co-transcriptionally.

Eukaryotic mRNA that has been processed and transported to the cytoplasm (i.e., mature mRNA) can then be translated by the ribosome. Translation may occur at ribosomes free-floating in the cytoplasm, or directed to the endoplasmic reticulum by the signal recognition particle. Therefore, unlike in prokaryotes, eukaryotic translation is not directly coupled to transcription.[12] It is even possible in some contexts that reduced mRNA levels are accompanied by increased protein levels, as has been observed for mRNA/protein levels of EEF1A1 in breast cancer.[13]

Other Languages
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