Five structural features in mRNAs have been found to contribute to the fidelity and efficiency of initiation by eukaryotic ribosomes. Scrutiny of vertebrate cDNA sequences in light of these criteria reveals a set of transcripts--encoding oncoproteins, growth factors, transcription factors, and other regulatory proteins--that seem designed to be translated poorly. Thus, throttling at the level of translation may be a critical component of gene regulation in vertebrates. An alternative interpretation is that some (perhaps many) cDNAs with encumbered 5' noncoding sequences represent mRNA precursors, which would imply extensive regulation at a posttranscriptional step that precedes translation.

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