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National Institutes of Health

Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development

2022 Annual Report of the Division of Intramural Research

Mechanism and Regulation of Eukaryotic Protein Synthesis

Tom Dever
  • Thomas E. Dever, PhD, Head, Section on Protein Biosynthesis
  • Ivaylo P. Ivanov, PhD, Staff Scientist
  • Byung-Sik Shin, PhD, Staff Scientist
  • Arya Vindu, PhD, Visiting Fellow
  • Sara Young-Baird, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow
  • Chune Cao, Biological Laboratory Technician
  • Joo-Ran Kim, BS, Special Volunteer
  • Thomas Saba, BS, Predoctoral Intramural Research Training Award Fellow

We study the mechanism and regulation of protein synthesis, focusing on GTPases, protein kinases, translation factors, and mRNA features that control this fundamental cellular process. We use molecular-genetic and biochemical studies in yeast and human cells to dissect the structure-function properties of translation factors, elucidate mechanisms that control protein synthesis, and characterize how mutations in the protein-synthesis apparatus cause human disease. Of special interest are the translation initiation factors eIF2, a GTPase that binds methionyl-tRNA to the ribosome, and eIF5B, a second GTPase that catalyzes ribosomal subunit joining in the final step of translation initiation. We also investigate stress-responsive protein kinases that phosphorylate eIF2alpha, as well as viral regulators of these kinases, and how cellular phosphatases are targeted to dephosphorylate eIF2alpha. We are characterizing eIF2gamma mutations that are associated with the MEHMO syndrome, a novel X-linked intellectual disability syndrome, and we are investigating the function of the translation factor eIF5A, with a focus on its ability to stimulate the peptidyl transferase activity of the ribosome and facilitate the reactivity of poor substrates such as proline. We are also examining the role of the hypusine modification on eIF5A and the role the factor plays in polyamine-regulated gene-specific translational control mechanisms, and we are characterizing metabolite control of translation via non-canonical upstream open reading frames (uORFs) in select mRNAs.

Evolutionarily conserved inhibitory uORFs sensitize Hox mRNA translation to start-codon selection stringency.

Selection of the translation start site (typically an AUG codon) in eukaryotes is influenced by context nucleotides flanking the AUG codon and by levels of the factors eIF1 and eIF5. A major recent focus of the lab has been to study translational control by start-codon selection. We conducted a search of mammalian genes and identified five homeobox (Hox) gene paralogs initiated by AUG codons in conserved suboptimal context, as well as 13 Hox genes that contain evolutionarily conserved upstream open reading frames (uORFs) that initiate at AUG codons in poor sequence context [Reference 1]. Our collaborator with Rachel Green mapped the 5′ end of the Hox mRNAs, revealing that the mRNAs are much shorter than previously reported and lack proposed alternative translation elements. We found that the conserved uORFs inhibit Hox reporter expression and that altering the stringency of start-codon selection by overexpressing translation initiation factors eIF1 or eIF5 modulates the expression of Hox reporters. We also showed that modifying ribosome homeostasis by depleting a large ribosomal subunit protein or treating cells with sublethal concentrations of puromycin lowers the fidelity of start-codon selection. Given that the Hox genes encode developmental regulators of animal body plans, our findings reveal that alteration in start-codon selection stringency has the potential to regulate global gene expression programs, including Hox gene–directed body plan formation in animals.

Translational control by metabolite-sensing nascent peptides

In ongoing studies, we searched for additional mRNAs containing noncanonical uORFs. One such candidate was identified in plants in the mRNA encoding GDP-L-galactose phosphorylase (GGP), a control enzyme in the vitamin C biosynthetic pathway. Using reporter assays in mammalian cells and, in vitro, using rabbit reticulocyte lysates, we revealed that a uORF–like element in the GGP mRNA mediates translational control by vitamin C. We propose that interaction of vitamin C with the GGP uORF nascent peptide in the ribosome exit tunnel causes the ribosome to pause and that queuing of subsequent scanning ribosomes results in increased initiation on the uORF and prevents ribosome access to the GGP ORF. We hypothesize that the mechanism by which a paused elongating ribosome promotes initiation at an upstream weak start site via ribosome queuing may underlie the control of translation of other mRNAs, especially those whose translation is derepressed by conditions that impair ribosome loading.

Analysis of eIF2gamma mutations that link intellectual disability with impaired translation initiation

Protein synthesis plays a critical role in learning and memory in model systems, and our studies have linked a human X-linked intellectual disability (XLID) syndrome with altered function of eIF2. In previous studies, we showed that the MEHMO syndrome (named based on the patient phenotypes: mental [intellectual] disability, epilepsy, hypogonadism and hypogenitalism, microcephaly, and obesity) is caused by mutations in the EIF2S3 gene, which encodes the gamma subunit of eIF2. Using genetic and biochemical techniques in yeast models of human MEHMO–syndrome mutations, we previously characterized several mutations that impair eIF2 function, disrupt eIF2 complex integrity, and alter the stringency of translation start-codon selection. Our collaborators have linked the EIF2S3 mutations with variable levels of motor delay, microcephaly, ID, epilepsy, central obesity, and diabetes, thus revealing a broad genetic spectrum and clinical expressivity of the MEHMO syndrome [Reference 2]. Over the past year, we have been characterizing additional novel EIF2S3 mutations identified in patients with the MEHMO syndrome. The work complements our previous studies characterizing other EIF2S3 mutations linked to the MEHMO syndrome and will further our understanding of the molecular defects in eIF2 that cause the varied symptoms of the disease.

In previous studies, we characterized induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells derived from a patient with the MEHMO syndrome. Our studies revealed defects in general protein synthesis, constitutive induction of the integrated stress response (ISR), a cellular stress response pathway that alters protein synthesis to mount an adaptive response, and hyper-induction of the ISR under stress conditions. The EIF2S3 mutation also impaired neuronal differentiation by the iPS cells. Interestingly, the drug ISRIB, an activator of the eIF2 guanine nucleotide exchange factor, rescued the cell growth, translation, and neuronal differentiation defects associated with the EIF2S3 mutation, offering the possibility of therapeutic intervention for the MEHMO syndrome [Reference 3]. Our current efforts are aimed at generating a mouse model of the MEHMO syndrome.

Molecular analysis of the hypusine-containing protein eIF5A and polyamine control of protein synthesis

The translation factor eIF5A is the sole cellular protein containing the unusual amino acid hypusine [Ne-(4-amino-2-hydroxybutyl)lysine]. In previous studies, we showed that eIF5A promotes translation elongation and that such activity depends on its hypusine modification. Moreover, using in vivo reporter assays and in vitro translation assays, we showed that eIF5A in yeast, like its bacterial homolog EF-P, is especially critical for the synthesis of proteins containing runs of consecutive proline residues. In collaboration with Rachel Green, we reported that eIF5A functions globally to promote both translation elongation and termination. Moreover, using our in vitro reconstituted assay system, we showed that the structural rigidity of the amino acid proline contributes to its heightened requirement for eIF5A and that eIF5A could functionally substitute for polyamines to stimulate general protein synthesis. Together with Marat Yusupov, we found that eIF5A binds in the ribosome E site to the hypusine residue projecting toward the acceptor stem of the P-site tRNA. Based on these findings, we propose that eIF5A and its hypusine residue function to reposition the acceptor arm of the P-site tRNA to enhance reactivity towards either an aminoacyl-tRNA, for peptide bond formation, or a release factor, for translation termination.

In ongoing experiments, we are further investigating the hypusine modification on eIF5A. The modification is formed in two steps: first, an n-butylamine moiety from spermidine is transferred to a specific Lys side chain on eIF5A, whereupon hydroxylation of the added moiety completes the formation of hypusine. In contrast to the essential deoxyhypusine synthase, which catalyzes the first step in hypusine formation, the LIA1 gene, encoding the hydroxylase, is non-essential in yeast. We identified mutations in eIF5A that cause synthetic growth defects in cells lacking the hydroxylase. Interestingly, the mutations map to the ribosome-binding face of eIF5A. Our results are consistent with the notion that the hydroxyl modification helps bind and position eIF5A and its hypusine residue to effectively promote the reactivity of the peptidyl-tRNA on the ribosome.

We also linked eIF5A to the regulation of polyamine metabolism in mammalian cells [Reference 4]. The enzyme ornithine decarboxylase (ODC) catalyzes the first step in polyamine synthesis. ODC is regulated by a protein called antizyme, which, in turn, is regulated by another protein called antizyme inhibitor (AZIN1). The synthesis of AZIN1 is inhibited by polyamines, and an unusual uORF in the leader of the AZIN1 mRNA is critical for the regulation. The uORF lacks a canonical AUG start codon and initiates at a near-cognate codon instead. We found that high polyamine levels enhance translation initiation from the near-cognate start site of the uORF, and, remarkably, polyamine induction of uORF translation depends on the sequence of the encoded polypeptide, including a highly conserved Pro-Pro-Trp (PPW) motif that causes polyamine-dependent pausing of elongating ribosomes.

Extending these studies, we identified eIF5A as a sensor and effector for polyamine control of uORF translation. Using reconstituted in vitro translation assays, we found that synthesis of a PPW peptide, like translation of polyproline sequences, requires eIF5A. Moreover, the ability of eIF5A to stimulate PPW synthesis was inhibited by polyamines and could be rescued by increasing eIF5A levels. Taken together, our studies showed that eIF5A functions generally in protein synthesis and that modulation of eIF5A function by polyamines can be exploited to regulate specific mRNA translation [Reference 4]. We are now exploring the possibility that polyamine regulation of eIF5A underlies translational control of mRNAs encoding other enzymes and regulators of polyamine biosynthesis.

In recent studies examining translational control by polyamines, we identified the yeast high-affinity polyamine transporter [Reference 5]. Using ribosome profiling, we identified mRNAs whose translation was sensitive to changes in polyamine levels. One of the mRNAs encoded a member of the drug-proton antiporter (DHA1) family of transporters called Hol1. We showed that HOL1 was required for yeast growth under limiting polyamine conditions and for high-affinity polyamine uptake by yeast. Together with Anirban Banerjee’s lab, we showed that purified Hol1 transports polyamines. The leader of the HOL1 mRNA contains a highly conserved uORF encoding the peptide MLLLPS. We found that polyamine inhibition of the translation factor eIF5A impairs translation termination at the Pro-Ser-stop (PS) motif of the uORF to repress Hol1 synthesis under conditions of elevated polyamines. Our findings reveal that polyamine transport, like polyamine biosynthesis, is under translational autoregulation by polyamines in yeast, highlighting the extensive control cells impose on polyamine levels. In ongoing studies, we are characterizing HOL1 homologs in the pathogenic yeast Candida albicans and testing the hypothesis that combined inhibition of Hol1 and polyamine synthesis might be an effective means to block growth of this pathogenic yeast.

Analysis of the role of eEF2 and its diphthamide modification in translation elongation

We are also studying the translation elongation factor eEF2. Like its bacterial ortholog EF-G, eEF2 promotes translocation of tRNAs and mRNA from the A site to the P site on the ribosome following peptide bond formation. In most eukaryotes and archaea, a conserved histidine residue at the tip of eEF2 is post-translationally modified to diphthamide through the action of seven non-essential proteins. The function of diphthamide and the rationale for its evolutionary conservation are not well understood. The name diphthamide is derived from diphtheria, a disease of the nose and throat caused by the bacterium Corynebacterium diphtheriae. Infections with C. diphtheriae can lead to respiratory distress and even death; however, an effective vaccine is available. The bacterium expresses a toxin that ADP–ribosylates the diphthamide residue, leading to inactivation of eEF2. Several additional bacterial pathogens, including Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Vibrio cholerae, express distinct toxins that also modify the diphthamide residue and inactivate eEF2.

Based on a cryo-electron microscopy structure of eEF2 bound to the yeast 80S ribosome, obtained during our previous collaboration with Venki Ramakrishnan’s lab (Cambridge, UK), we hypothesized that diphthamide has at least two functions: first, to disrupt the decoding interactions of rRNA with the codon-anticodon duplex in the ribosomal A site; and second, to help chaperone the codon-anticodon interaction as the A-site tRNA is translocated to the P site. In ongoing studies, we are further exploring the role of diphthamide in promoting the accuracy and efficiency of translation elongation. We first identified mutations in eEF2 that sensitize cell growth to the loss of diphthamide. Then, we used these mutants to characterize the translational defects associated with loss of diphthamide. Our preliminary data indicate that loss of diphthamide impairs ribosome processivity during elongation as a result of increased levels of frameshifting and translation termination at out-of-frame stop codons. Such increased frameshifting in yeast and mammalian cells lacking diphthamide occurs at both programmed frameshifting sites in the HIV and SARS-CoV-2 viruses and throughout translation elongation at non-programmed sites. We propose that diphthamide, despite its non-essential nature in yeast, has been conserved throughout evolution to maintain the fidelity of translation elongation and block spurious frameshifting events that would impair the production of the native proteins and generate novel frameshifted proteins that might be deleterious to the cell.

Molecular analysis of eIF5B and a translational fidelity checkpoint at subunit joining

The translation factor eIF5B is a GTPase required for the last step of translation initiation: the joining of the large ribosomal subunit to the small subunit poised on the start codon of an mRNA. The eIF5B binds to the 40S subunit and collaborates in the correct positioning of the initiator Met-tRNAiMet on the ribosome in the later stages of translation initiation, gating entrance into elongation. Working with Jody Puglisi and colleagues, we helped show that eIF5B promotes subunit joining by repositioning the acceptor arm of Met-tRNAiMet and that the factor also plays an important role in translation start-site selection, ensuring high fidelity in this process, which establishes the reading frame for translation on an mRNA.

Additional Funding

  • Intramural Targeted Anti-COVID-19 (ITAC) Award (2021–2023): “Control of Ribosomal Frameshifting on the SARS-CoV-2 mRNA”


  1. Ivanov IP, Saba JA, Fan CM, Wang J, Firth AE, Cao C, Green R, Dever TE. Evolutionarily conserved inhibitory uORFs sensitize Hox mRNA translation to start codon selection stringency. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 2022 119:e2117226119.
  2. Kotzaeridou U, Young-Baird SK, Suckow V, Thornburg AG, Wagner M, Harting I, Christ S, Strom T, Dever TE, Kalscheuer VM. Novel pathogenic EIF2S3 missense variants causing clinically variable MEHMO syndrome with impaired eIF2gamma translational function, and literature review. Clin Genet 2020 98:507–514.
  3. Young-Baird SK, Lourenço MB, Elder MK, Klann E, Liebau S, Dever TE. Suppression of MEHMO syndrome mutation in eIF2 by small molecule ISRIB. Mol Cell 2020 77:875–886.
  4. Ivanov IP, Shin BS, Loughran G, Tzani I, Young-Baird SK, Atkins JF, Dever TE. Polyamine control of translation elongation regulates start site selection on antizyme inhibitor mRNA via ribosome queuing. Mol Cell 2018 70:254–265.
  5. Vindu A, Shin BS, Choi K, Christenson ET, Ivanov IP, Cao C, Banerjee A, Dever TE. Translational autoregulation of the S. cerevisiae high-affinity polyamine transporter Hol1. Mol Cell 2021 81:3904–3918.


  • John Atkins, PhD, University College Cork, Cork, Ireland
  • Anirban Banerjee, PhD, Unit on Structural and Chemical Biology of Membrane Proteins, NICHD, Bethesda, MD
  • Israel Fernandez, PhD, St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital, Memphis, TN
  • Adam Geballe, MD, The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle, WA
  • Terri Goss Kinzy, PhD, Illinois State University, Normal, IL
  • Rachel Green, PhD, The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD
  • Vera Kalscheuer, PhD, Max Planck Institut für Moleculare Genetik, Berlin, Germany
  • Eric Klann, PhD, New York University, New York, NY
  • Stefan Leibau, MD, Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen, Tübingen, Germany
  • Joseph Puglisi, PhD, Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA
  • Matthew Sachs, PhD, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX
  • Naomi Taylor, MD, PhD, Pediatric Oncology Branch, Center for Cancer Research, NCI, Bethesda, MD
  • Daniel Wilson, PhD, Institut für Biochemie und Molekularbiologie, Universität Hamburg, Hamburg, Germany
  • Marat Yusupov, PhD, Institut de Génétique et de Biologie Moléculaire et Cellulaire, Strasbourg, France


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