The mRNA Processing


Related Posts:

An illustration shows that before R N A processing, there is a primary R N A transcript including five boxes labeled, left to right, as exon 1, intron, exon 2, intron, and exon 3. After R N A processing, there is a spliced R N A with these parts, left to right are  a 5 prime cap, a 5 prime untranslated region, exon 1, exon 2, exon 3, a 3 prime untranslated region, and a poly a tail.
Eukaryotic mRNA contains introns that must be spliced out. A 5′ cap and 3′ poly-A tail are also added. Source: OpenStax Biology 2e

OpenStax Biology 2e

The eukaryotic pre-mRNA undergoes extensive processing before it is ready to be translated. Eukaryotic protein-coding sequences are not continuous, as they are in prokaryotes. The coding sequences (exons) are interrupted by noncoding introns, which must be removed to make a translatable mRNA. The additional steps involved in eukaryotic mRNA maturation also create a molecule with a much longer half-life than a prokaryotic mRNA. Eukaryotic mRNAs last for several hours, whereas the typical E. coli mRNA lasts no more than five seconds.

Pre-mRNAs are first coated in RNA-stabilizing proteins; these protect the pre-mRNA from degradation while it is processed and exported out of the nucleus. The three most important steps of pre-mRNA processing are the addition of stabilizing and signaling factors at the 5′ and 3′ ends of the molecule, and the removal of the introns. In rare cases, the mRNA transcript can be “edited” after it is transcribed.

5′ Capping

While the pre-mRNA is still being synthesized, a 7-methylguanosine cap is added to the 5′ end of the growing transcript by a phosphate linkage. This functional group protects the nascent mRNA from degradation. In addition, factors involved in protein synthesis recognize the cap to help initiate translation by ribosomes.

3′ Poly-A Tail

Once elongation is complete, the pre-mRNA is cleaved by an endonuclease between an AAUAAA consensus sequence and a GU-rich sequence, leaving the AAUAAA sequence on the pre-mRNA. An enzyme called poly-A polymerase then adds a string of approximately 200 A residues, called the poly-A tail. This modification further protects the pre-mRNA from degradation and is also the binding site for a protein necessary for exporting the processed mRNA to the cytoplasm.

Pre-mRNA Splicing

Eukaryotic genes are composed of exons, which correspond to protein-coding sequences (ex-on signifies that they are expressed), and intervening sequences called introns (int-ron denotes their intervening role), which may be involved in gene regulation but are removed from the pre-mRNA during processing. Intron sequences in mRNA do not encode functional proteins.

The discovery of introns came as a surprise to researchers in the 1970s who expected that pre-mRNAs would specify protein sequences without further processing, as they had observed in prokaryotes. The genes of higher eukaryotes very often contain one or more introns. These regions may correspond to regulatory sequences; however, the biological significance of having many introns or having very long introns in a gene is unclear. It is possible that introns slow down gene expression because it takes longer to transcribe pre-mRNAs with lots of introns. Alternatively, introns may be nonfunctional sequence remnants left over from the fusion of ancient genes throughout the course of evolution. This is supported by the fact that separate exons often encode separate protein subunits or domains. For the most part, the sequences of introns can be mutated without ultimately affecting the protein product.

All of a pre-mRNA’s introns must be completely and precisely removed before protein synthesis. If the process errs by even a single nucleotide, the reading frame of the rejoined exons would shift, and the resulting protein would be dysfunctional. The process of removing introns and reconnecting exons is called splicing. Introns are removed and degraded while the pre-mRNA is still in the nucleus. Splicing occurs by a sequence-specific mechanism that ensures introns will be removed and exons rejoined with the accuracy and precision of a single nucleotide. Although the intron itself is noncoding, the beginning and end of each intron is marked with specific nucleotides: GU at the 5′ end and AG at the 3′ end of the intron. The splicing of pre-mRNAs is conducted by complexes of proteins and RNA molecules called spliceosomes.

Illustration shows a spliceosome bound to m R N A. An intron is wrapped around s n R N Ps associated with the spliceosome. When the splice is complete, the exons on either side of the intron are fused together, and the intron forms a ring structure.
Pre-mRNA splicing involves the precise removal of introns from the primary RNA transcript. The splicing process is catalyzed by protein complexes called spliceosomes that are composed of proteins and RNA molecules called small nuclear RNAs (snRNAs). Spliceosomes recognize sequences at the 5′ and 3′ end of the intron. Source: OpenStax Biology 2e

Note that more than 70 individual introns can be present, and each has to undergo the process of splicing—in addition to 5′ capping and the addition of a poly-A tail—just to generate a single, translatable mRNA molecule.


Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: