10:45am Saturday 11 July 2020

New mechanism in the regulation of human genes

New mechanism in the regulation of human genes

Scientists at the Helmholtz Zentrum München and the Technical University of Munich (TUM) along with their colleagues from the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg and the Centre for Genomic Regulation in Barcelona have discovered how the U2AF protein enables the pre-mRNA* to be spliced to form the mRNA*, which serves as a template for protein synthesis in the body.

Splicing requires the cooperation of different proteins, i.e. splicing factors. One such splicing factor, U2AF, was examined by the Munich scientists. It consists of two structural modules and binds to the RNA near the intron*-exon* boundary. Professor Michael Sattler, Director of the Institute for Structural Biology at the Helmholtz Zentrum München and Professor of Biomolecular NMR Spectroscopy at the Technische Universität München, summarizes how the U2AF protein contributes towards splicing: “The spatial structure of the U2AF protein alternates between a closed and an open conformation. A matching RNA sequence in the intron causes the U2AF to assume an open conformation, which activates splicing and eventually leads to the removal of the intron.” The intron’s RNA sequence determines how effectively this conformational change can be triggered. This shift of balance between the closed and the open form of the U2AF protein occurs through a process of conformational selection, i.e. the RNA binds to a small fraction of the open conformation that already exists even in the absence of RNA. The scientists presume that similar mechanisms – balanced between a closed, inactive and an open, active conformation – play an important role in the regulation of many other signal pathways in the cell.

Further information


The genes in the human genome have a specific structure. Sections with relevant exons alternate with regions known as introns, which contain irrelevant information that does not encode the corresponding protein. In order for a protein to be produced, pre-messenger RNA (pre-mRNA) first has to be transcribed from the DNA. The pre-mRNA copy is then spliced and the introns are removed, leaving the mRNA; which consists solely of exons. Splicing requires that the introns recognized and accurately excised. Splicing is thus an essential process in the central dogma of molecular biology: genetic information flows in one direction: from the DNA to RNA to proteins.

* Genome / gene / DNA / mRNA: Genes are the basis for the synthesis of proteins. In the first step, desoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is transcribed to form a messenger ribonucleic acid (messenger RNA or mRNA), which in turn provides a template for protein synthesis. An organism’s complete set of DNA is known as a genome.

*Splicing / exons / introns / (pre-) mRNA: Exons are the DNA sections that encode the amino acid sequence of a given protein. The introns, which lie between the exons, are removed in the splicing process. The pre-mRNA thus is processed to a more mature  mRNA.


Diagram 1: The central dogma of molecular biology: DNA is transcribed into RNA, from which protein is then formed. Splicing – the removal of the introns from the mRNA – is an essential step in the process. Dysregulated splicing can cause many diseases, including cancer.

Diagram 2: Binding of the splicing factor U2AF to the RNA with and without conformational changes. Both conformations are in equilibrium.

Original publication:

Mackereth, C.D. et al. (2011) Multi-domain conformational selection underlies premRNA splicing regulation by U2AF, Nature. Doi:  10.1038/nature10171

Link to publication

The Helmholtz Zentrum München is the German Research Centre for Environmental Health. The leading research facility in this field, it conducts research into chronic and complex diseases caused by the interaction of environmental factors and an individual’s genetic disposition. The Helmholtz Zentrum München has about 1,700 staff members and is headquartered in Neuherberg in the north of Munich on a 50-hectare research campus. The Helmholtz Zentrum München is a member of the Helmholtz Association, Germany’s largest scientific organisation, a community of 17 scientific-technical and medical-biological research centres with a total of 30,000 staff members.

Technische Universität München (TUM) is one of Germany’s leading universities. It has roughly 460 professors, 7,500 academic and non-academic staff (including those at the university hospital “Rechts der Isar”), and 26,000 students. It focuses on the engineering sciences, natural sciences, life sciences, medicine, and economic sciences. After winning numerous awards, it was selected as an “Elite University” in 2006 by the Science Council (Wissenschaftsrat) and the German Research Foundation (DFG). The university’s global network includes an outpost in Singapore. TUM is dedicated to the ideal of a top-level research-based entrepreneurial university. http://www.tum.de

Contact for media representatives

Sven Winkler, Helmholtz Zentrum München – German Research Centre for Environmental Health (GmbH), Ingolstädter Landstrasse 1, 85764 Neuherberg – Tel.: +49 89-3187-3946 – Fax: +49 89-3187-3324 – E-Mail: [email protected]

Scientific contact
Prof. Michael Sattler, Institute for Structural Biology, Helmholtz Zentrum München – German Research Centre for Environmental Health (GmbH), Ingolstädter Landstrasse 1, 85764 Neuherberg – Tel.: +49 89-289 13418 – E-Mail: [email protected]

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