Transcription from morbillivirus genomes commences at a single promoter in the 3' non-coding terminus, with the six genes being transcribed sequentially. The 3' and 5' untranslated regions (UTRs) of the genes (mRNA sense), together with the intergenic trinucleotide spacer, comprise the non-coding sequences (NCS) of the virus and contain the conserved gene end and gene start signals, respectively. Bicistronic minigenomes containing transcription units (TUs) encoding autofluorescent reporter proteins separated by measles virus (MV) NCS were used to give a direct estimation of gene expression in single, living cells by assessing the relative amounts of each fluorescent protein in each cell. Initially, five minigenomes containing each of the MV NCS were generated. Assays were developed to determine the amount of each fluorescent protein in cells at both cell population and single-cell levels. This revealed significant variations in gene expression between cells expressing the same NCS-containing minigenome. The minigenome containing the M/F NCS produced significantly lower amounts of fluorescent protein from the second TU (TU2), compared with the other minigenomes. A minigenome with a truncated F 5' UTR had increased expression from TU2. This UTR is 524 nt longer than the other MV 5' UTRs. Insertions into the 5' UTR of the enhanced green fluorescent protein gene in the minigenome containing the N/P NCS showed that specific sequences, rather than just the additional length of F 5' UTR, govern this decreased expression from TU2.
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