Synthesis of mRNA in eukaryotes involves the coordinated action of many enzymatic processes, including initiation, elongation, splicing, and cleavage. Kinetic competition between these processes has been proposed to determine RNA fate, yet such coupling has never been observed in vivo on single transcripts. In this study, we use dual-color single-molecule RNA imaging in living human cells to construct a complete kinetic profile of transcription and splicing of the β-globin gene. We find that kinetic competition results in multiple competing pathways for pre-mRNA splicing. Splicing of the terminal intron occurs stochastically both before and after transcript release, indicating there is not a strict quality control checkpoint. The majority of pre-mRNAs are spliced after release, while diffusing away from the site of transcription. A single missense point mutation (S34F) in the essential splicing factor U2AF1 which occurs in human cancers perturbs this kinetic balance and defers splicing to occur entirely post-release.
To make a protein, part of a DNA sequence is copied to make a messenger RNA (or mRNA) molecule in a process known as transcription. The enzyme that builds an mRNA molecule first binds to a start point on a DNA strand, and then uses the DNA sequence to build a ‘pre-mRNA’ molecule until a stop signal is reached.
To make the final mRNA molecule, sections called introns are removed from the pre-mRNA molecules, and the parts left behind—known as exons—are then joined together. This process is called splicing. However, it is not fully understood how the splicing process is coordinated with the other stages of transcription. For example, does splicing occur after the pre-mRNA molecule is completed or while it is still being built? And what controls the order in which these processes occur?
One theory about how the different mRNA-making processes are coordinated is called kinetic competition. This theory states that the fastest process is the most likely to occur, even if the other processes use less energy and so might be expected to be preferred. Alternatively, the different steps may be started and stopped by ‘checkpoints’ that cause the different processes to follow on from each other in a set order.
Coulon et al. used fluorescence microscopy to investigate how mRNA molecules are made during the transcription of a human gene that makes a hemoglobin protein. To make the RNA visible, two different fluorescent markers were introduced into the pre-mRNA that cause different regions of the mRNA to glow in different colors. Coulon et al. made the introns fluoresce red and the exons glow green. Unspliced pre-mRNA molecules contain both introns and exons and so fluoresce in both colors, whereas spliced mRNA molecules contain only exons and so only glow with a green color.
By looking at both the red and green fluorescence signals at the same time, Coulon et al. could see when an intron was spliced out of the pre-mRNA. This revealed that in normal cells, splicing can occur either before or after the RNA is released from where it is transcribed. Thus, splicing and transcription does not follow a set pattern, suggesting that checkpoints do not control the sequence of events. Instead, the fact that a spliced mRNA molecule can be formed in different ways suggests kinetic competition controls the process.
In some cancer cells, there are defects in the cellular machinery that controls splicing. When looking at cells with such a defect, Coulon et al. found that splicing only occurred after transcription was completed. This study thus provides insight into the complex workings of mRNA synthesis and establishes a blueprint for understanding how splicing is impaired in diseases such as cancer.