The nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans and its relatives are unique among animals in having operons1. Operons are regulated multigene transcription units, in which polycistronic pre-messenger RNA (pre-mRNA coding for multiple peptides) is processed to monocistronic mRNAs. This occurs by 3′ end formation and trans-splicing using the specialized SL2 small nuclear ribonucleoprotein particle2 for downstream mRNAs1. Previously, the correlation between downstream location in an operon and SL2 trans-splicing has been strong, but anecdotal3. Although only 28 operons have been reported, the complete sequence of the C. elegans genome reveals numerous gene clusters4. To determine how many of these clusters represent operons, we probed full-genome microarrays for SL2-containing mRNAs. We found significant enrichment for about 1,200 genes, including most of a group of several hundred genes represented by complementary DNAs that contain SL2 sequence. Analysis of their genomic arrangements indicates that >90% are downstream genes, falling in 790 distinct operons. Our evidence indicates that the genome contains at least 1,000 operons, 2–8 genes long, that contain about 15% of all C. elegans genes. Numerous examples of co-transcription of genes encoding functionally related proteins are evident. Inspection of the operon list should reveal previously unknown functional relationships.
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We thank J. Spieth, J. Kent, A. Zahler and L. Stein for help with navigation of the C. elegans databases, Y. Kohara for cDNA data, M. Huang for discussions, I. Shah for statistical advice, D. Guiliano and M. Blaxter for communication of unpublished results, and P. MacMorris for advice on the manuscript. This work was supported by the NIH (T.B., C.D.L. and S.K.K.).
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