Research ArticleGENETICS

Variant ribosomal RNA alleles are conserved and exhibit tissue-specific expression

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Science Advances  28 Feb 2018:
Vol. 4, no. 2, eaao0665
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aao0665


The ribosome, the integration point for protein synthesis in the cell, is conventionally considered a homogeneous molecular assembly that only passively contributes to gene expression. Yet, epigenetic features of the ribosomal DNA (rDNA) operon and changes in the ribosome’s molecular composition have been associated with disease phenotypes, suggesting that the ribosome itself may possess inherent regulatory capacity. Analyzing whole-genome sequencing data from the 1000 Genomes Project and the Mouse Genomes Project, we find that rDNA copy number varies widely across individuals, and we identify pervasive intra- and interindividual nucleotide variation in the 5S, 5.8S, 18S, and 28S ribosomal RNA (rRNA) genes of both human and mouse. Conserved rRNA sequence heterogeneities map to functional centers of the assembled ribosome, variant rRNA alleles exhibit tissue-specific expression, and ribosomes bearing variant rRNA alleles are present in the actively translating ribosome pool. These findings provide a critical framework for exploring the possibility that the expression of genomically encoded variant rRNA alleles gives rise to physically and functionally heterogeneous ribosomes that contribute to mammalian physiology and human disease.

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