Internal ribosome entry site

Internal ribosome entry site

An internal ribosome entry site, abbreviated IRES, is a nucleotide sequence that allows for translation initiation in the middle of a messenger RNA (mRNA) sequence as part of the greater process of protein synthesis. Usually, in eukaryotes, translation can only be initiated at the 5' end of the mRNA molecule, since 5' cap recognition is required for the assembly of the initiation complex.


These sequences were first discovered in 1988 in poliovirus RNA and encephalomyocarditis virus RNA in the labs of Nahum Sonenbergcite journal |author=Pelletier J, Sonenberg N |title=Internal initiation of translation of eukaryotic mRNA directed by a sequence derived from poliovirus RNA |journal=Nature |volume=334 |issue=6180 |pages=320–5 |year=1988 |pmid=2839775 |doi=10.1038/334320a0] and Eckard Wimmercite journal |author=Jang SK, Kräusslich HG, Nicklin MJ, Duke GM, Palmenberg AC, Wimmer E |title=A segment of the 5' nontranslated region of encephalomyocarditis virus RNA directs internal entry of ribosomes during in vitro translation |journal=J. Virol. |volume=62 |issue=8 |pages=2636–43 |year=1988 |month=Aug |pmid=2839690 |pmc=253694 |doi= |url=] , respectively. They are described as distinct regions of RNA molecules that are able to attract the eukaryotic ribosome to the mRNA molecule and therefore allow translation initiation to occur. This process became known as the internal initiation of translation. It has been hypothesized that IRES elements have a distinct secondary or even tertiary structure, but similar structural features at the levels of either primary or secondary structure that are common to all IRES segments have not been reported to date.


Commonly, IRESes are located in the 5'UTR of RNA viruses and allow translation of the RNAs in a cap-independent manner. However, mRNAs of viruses from "Dicistroviridae" family possess two ORFs (open reading frames), translation of the both being directed by two distinct IRESes. It was later suggested that some mammalian mRNAs also have IRES. Several cellular IRES elements are thought to be located in eukaryotic mRNAs encoding genes involved in stress survival, and other processes critical to survival. As of November 2005, there are about 50 viruses reported to contain IRES segments and about 73 mRNA sequences containing them as well. A definitive approach to present the supporting experimental data and to re-evaluate the former findings in current context of the knowledge started at


IRES are often used by viruses as a means of shutting down translation in the host cell so that the cell's translational machinery will operate to translate viral mRNA. The virus accomplishes this feat by cleaving eIF-4G so that it cannot interact with eIF-4E. Interaction between these two initiation factors is necessary for mRNA 5'cap to 3'poly-A-tail loop formation, which is usually a necessary event for initiation of translation. The virus may even use the eIF-4G to aid in intitiation of IRES-mediated translation.

The cell may also use IRES to increase translation of certain proteins during mitosis and programmed cell death. In mitosis, the cell dephosphorylates eIF-4E so that it has little affinity for the 5'cap. As a result, the pre-initiation mRNA loop is not formed, and the translational machinery is diverted to IRES within the mRNA. Many proteins involved in mitosis are encoded by IRES mRNA. In programmed cell death, cleavage of eIF-4G, such as performed by viruses, decreases translation. Lack of essential proteins contributes to the death of the cell, as does translation of IRES mRNA sequences coding proteins involved in controlling cell death.

Alberts, B et al. (2002). Molecular Biology of the Cell, 4th Edition. Garland Science, NY, NY. 447-448.


The mechanism of viral IRES function is to date better characterized than the mechanism of cellular IRES function [cite journal |author=López-Lastra M, Rivas A, Barría MI |title=Protein synthesis in eukaryotes: the growing biological relevance of cap-independent translation initiation |journal=Biol. Res. |volume=38 |issue=2-3 |pages=121–46 |year=2005 |pmid=16238092 |doi= |url=] , for which no clear mechanism have been proposed yet. Hepatitis C Virus-related IRESs directly bind 40S ribosomal subunit in such a way that their initiator codons are located in ribosomal P-site without mRNA scanning. These IRESs do not require Eukaryotic initiation factors eIF1, 1A, 4A, 4B, and 4E. Picornavirus IRES do not attract 40S directly, but rather through high-affinity eIF4G-binding site.cite journal |author=Hellen CU, Sarnow P |title=Internal ribosome entry sites in eukaryotic mRNA molecules |journal=Genes Dev. |volume=15 |issue=13 |pages=1593–612 |year=2001 |url= |pmid=11445534 |doi=10.1101/gad.891101] In addition, many viral IRES (as well as cellular IRES) require additional proteins to mediate their function, known as IRES "trans"-acting factors (ITAFs). The role of ITAFs in IRES function is currently the subject of intense research.


Testing a particular RNA sequence for IRES activity relies on a bicistronic reporter construct. When an IRES segment is located between two reporter open reading frames in a eukaryotic mRNA molecule (a bicistronic mRNA), it can drive translation of the downstream protein coding region independently of the 5'-cap structure bound to the 5' end of the mRNA molecule. In such a setup both proteins are produced in the cell. The first reporter protein located in the first cistron is synthesized by the cap-dependent initiation approach while translation initiation of the second protein is directed by the IRES segment located in the intercistronic spacer region between the two reporter protein coding regions. However, there are several caveats to be aware of when interpreting the data produced using bicistronic reporter constructs.cite journal |author=Kozak M |title=A second look at cellular mRNA sequences said to function as internal ribosome entry sites |journal=Nucleic Acids Res. |volume=33 |issue=20 |pages=6593–602 |year=2005 |url= |pmid=16314320 |doi=10.1093/nar/gki958] For example, there are several known cases of mis-reported IRES segments which were later recognized as promoter-containing regions.



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