Monocistronic mRNA vs. Polycistronic mRNA

What's the Difference?

Monocistronic mRNA and polycistronic mRNA are two types of messenger RNA molecules found in cells. Monocistronic mRNA carries the genetic information for a single protein coding sequence, meaning it contains the instructions for the synthesis of only one protein. On the other hand, polycistronic mRNA carries the genetic information for multiple protein coding sequences, allowing for the synthesis of multiple proteins from a single mRNA molecule. This is achieved through the presence of multiple open reading frames (ORFs) in polycistronic mRNA, each coding for a different protein. While monocistronic mRNA is more common in eukaryotic cells, polycistronic mRNA is typically found in prokaryotes and some viruses.


AttributeMonocistronic mRNAPolycistronic mRNA
DefinitionRefers to mRNA that carries the genetic information for a single protein coding sequence.Refers to mRNA that carries the genetic information for multiple protein coding sequences.
StructureConsists of a single open reading frame (ORF) encoding a single protein.Consists of multiple ORFs encoding multiple proteins, often separated by internal ribosome entry sites (IRES).
Gene RegulationAllows for precise regulation of gene expression as each mRNA molecule codes for a specific protein.Allows for coordinated expression of multiple proteins from a single mRNA molecule.
Translation EfficiencyGenerally exhibits higher translation efficiency due to the absence of ribosome collisions.May exhibit lower translation efficiency due to potential ribosome collisions during simultaneous translation of multiple ORFs.
Common inEukaryotesProkaryotes
ExamplesMost eukaryotic mRNAsBacterial operons

Further Detail


Messenger RNA (mRNA) is a crucial molecule in the process of protein synthesis. It carries the genetic information from DNA to the ribosomes, where it is translated into proteins. There are two main types of mRNA: monocistronic mRNA and polycistronic mRNA. While both types serve the purpose of protein synthesis, they differ in their structure, function, and regulation.

Monocistronic mRNA

Monocistronic mRNA is characterized by having a single coding region or open reading frame (ORF). This means that it carries the genetic information for the translation of only one protein. The coding region is typically flanked by a 5' untranslated region (UTR) and a 3' UTR, which play important roles in mRNA stability, translation initiation, and post-transcriptional regulation.

Monocistronic mRNA is commonly found in eukaryotes, including humans. It allows for precise regulation of gene expression, as each mRNA molecule is responsible for the production of a specific protein. This type of mRNA is transcribed from a single gene and undergoes extensive processing, including capping, splicing, and polyadenylation, before it is exported from the nucleus to the cytoplasm for translation.

One of the advantages of monocistronic mRNA is that it allows for the production of different protein isoforms through alternative splicing. This process involves the selective inclusion or exclusion of exons during mRNA processing, resulting in the generation of multiple mRNA variants from a single gene. This provides cells with a mechanism to increase protein diversity and functionality.

Monocistronic mRNA also enables the regulation of gene expression at the post-transcriptional level. The presence of specific sequences in the UTRs allows for the binding of regulatory proteins and microRNAs, which can influence mRNA stability, translation efficiency, and localization within the cell. This fine-tuned regulation ensures that proteins are produced in the right amount and at the right time.

Polycistronic mRNA

Polycistronic mRNA, on the other hand, contains multiple coding regions or ORFs within a single transcript. This means that it carries the genetic information for the translation of multiple proteins. Polycistronic mRNA is commonly found in prokaryotes, such as bacteria, and some viruses.

The structure of polycistronic mRNA allows for the coordinated expression of genes that are functionally related or involved in the same metabolic pathway. The coding regions are typically separated by short non-coding regions called intercistronic regions. These regions often contain specific sequences, known as Shine-Dalgarno sequences in bacteria, which are involved in ribosome binding and translation initiation.

Polycistronic mRNA is transcribed from operons, which are clusters of genes that are transcribed together as a single unit. This arrangement allows for efficient regulation of gene expression, as the transcription of the entire operon can be controlled by a single promoter and regulatory elements. This ensures that all the genes within the operon are either expressed or repressed simultaneously.

Unlike monocistronic mRNA, polycistronic mRNA does not undergo extensive processing. It lacks the complex splicing and polyadenylation events observed in eukaryotic mRNA. Instead, it is often directly translated into proteins as soon as it is transcribed. This rapid translation allows for the quick production of multiple proteins from a single mRNA molecule, which is advantageous in prokaryotic cells with fast growth rates.

Another interesting feature of polycistronic mRNA is the presence of internal ribosome entry sites (IRES). These sequences allow for the initiation of translation at internal positions within the mRNA, bypassing the need for a 5' cap structure. This mechanism is particularly important in viral polycistronic mRNA, where the viral proteins need to be synthesized efficiently to support viral replication.


While monocistronic mRNA and polycistronic mRNA have distinct characteristics, they both play important roles in protein synthesis. Monocistronic mRNA is prevalent in eukaryotes and allows for precise regulation of gene expression, alternative splicing, and post-transcriptional control. On the other hand, polycistronic mRNA is commonly found in prokaryotes and some viruses, enabling the coordinated expression of functionally related genes and rapid translation of multiple proteins.

Both types of mRNA have their advantages and are adapted to the specific needs of the organisms in which they are found. Monocistronic mRNA provides a high level of regulation and protein diversity, while polycistronic mRNA allows for efficient expression of genes involved in the same pathway or operon. Understanding the differences between these two types of mRNA is crucial for unraveling the complexities of gene expression and protein synthesis in various organisms.

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