Maria José López-Iniesta et al.
p53 is the most commonly mutated gene in human cancers. Two fundamental reasons for this are: its long protein isoforms protect from cancer while its shorter C-terminal isoforms can support cancer and metastasis. Previously, we have shown that the Δ160p53 protein isoform enhances survival and the invasive character of cancer cells. Here, we identified a translation initiation site 9 codons downstream of codon 160 – the known initiation codon for the translation of Δ160p53 – that is recognized by the translation machinery. When translation failed to initiate from AUG160 due to mutation, it initiated from AUG169 instead, producing similar levels of a similar protein, Δ169p53, which promoted cell survival as efficiently as Δ160p53. Interestingly, almost all mammalian species with an orthologue to human AUG160 also possess one for AUG169, while none of the non-mammalian species lacking AUG160 have AUG169, even if that region of the p53 gene is well conserved. In view of our findings we do not believe that Δ169p53 acts as a different p53 protein isoform; instead we propose that the double translation initiation site strengthens the translation of these products with a critical role in cell homeostasis. Future studies will help verify if this is a more general mechanism for the expression of essential proteins in mammals.