Strategies for expressing multiple foreign genes in plants as polycistronic constructs
We investigated whether the two cistrons of a dicistronic mRNA can be translated in plants to yield both gene products. The coding sequences of various reporter genes were combined in dicistronic units, and their expression was analyzed in stably transformed tobacco plants at the RNA and protein levels. The presence of an upstream cistron resulted in all cases in a drastically reduced expression of the downstream cistron. The translational efficiency of the gene located downstream in the dicistronic units was 500- to 1,500-fold lower than that in a monocistronic control; a 500-fold lower value was obtained with a dicistronic unit in which both cistrons were separated by 30 nucleotides, whereas a 1,500-fold lower value was obtained with a dicistronic unit in which the stop codon of the upstream cistron and the start codon of the downstream cistron overlapped. As a strategy to select indirectly for transformants with enhanced levels of expression of a gene which is by itself nonselectable, the gene of interest can be cloned upstream from a selectable marker in a dicistronic configuration. This strategy can be used provided that the amount of dicistronic mRNA is high. If, on the other hand, the expression of the dicistronic unit is too low, selection of the downstream cistron will primarily give clones with rearranged dicistronic units.