In eukaryotes, it is generally assumed that translation initiation occurs at the AUG codon closest to the messenger RNA 5' cap. However, in certain cases, initiation can occur at codons differing from AUG by a single nucleotide, especially the codons CUG, UUG, GUG, ACG, AUA and AUU. While non-AUG initiation has been experimentally verified for a handful of human genes, the full extent to which this phenomenon is utilized--both for increased coding capacity and potentially also for novel regulatory mechanisms--remains unclear. To address this issue, and hence to improve the quality of existing coding sequence annotations, we developed a methodology based on phylogenetic analysis of predicted 5' untranslated regions from orthologous genes. We use evolutionary signatures of protein-coding sequences as an indicator of translation initiation upstream of annotated coding sequences. Our search identified novel conserved potential non-AUG-initiated N-terminal extensions in 42 human genes including VANGL2, FGFR1, KCNN4, TRPV6, HDGF, CITED2, EIF4G3 and NTF3, and also affirmed the conservation of known non-AUG-initiated extensions in 17 other genes. In several instances, we have been able to obtain independent experimental evidence of the expression of non-AUG-initiated products from the previously published literature and ribosome profiling data.
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