Translational buffering by ribosome stalling in upstream open reading frames

Bottorff T, Park H, Geballe AP , Subramaniam AR PLoS Genetics 18(10): e1010460, 2022


Upstream open reading frames (uORFs) are present in over half of all human mRNAs. uORFs can potently regulate the translation of downstream open reading frames through several mechanisms: siphoning away scanning ribosomes, regulating re-initiation, and allowing interactions between scanning and elongating ribosomes. However, the consequences of these different mechanisms for the regulation of protein expression remain incompletely understood. Here, we performed systematic measurements on the uORF-containing 5′ UTR of the cytomegaloviral UL4 mRNA to test alternative models of uORF-mediated regulation in human cells. We find that a terminal diproline-dependent elongating ribosome stall in the UL4 uORF prevents decreases in main ORF translation when ribosome loading onto the mRNA is reduced. This uORF-mediated buffering is insensitive to the location of the ribosome stall along the uORF. Computational kinetic modeling based on our measurements suggests that scanning ribosomes dissociate rather than queue when they collide with stalled elongating ribosomes within the UL4 uORF. We propose that ribosome stalls in uORFs provide a general mechanism for buffering against reductions in main ORF translation during stress and developmental transitions.