FEBS J. 289 (1) 53-74 [2022-01-00; online 2021-02-24]
Short ORFs (sORFs), that is, occurrences of a start and stop codon within 100 codons or less, can be found in organisms of all domains of life, outnumbering annotated protein-coding ORFs by orders of magnitude. Even though functional proteins smaller than 100 amino acids are known, the coding potential of sORFs has often been overlooked, as it is not trivial to predict and test for functionality within the large number of sORFs. Recent advances in ribosome profiling and mass spectrometry approaches, together with refined bioinformatic predictions, have enabled a huge leap forward in this field and identified thousands of likely coding sORFs. A relatively low number of small proteins or microproteins produced from these sORFs have been characterized so far on the molecular, structural, and/or mechanistic level. These however display versatile and, in some cases, essential cellular functions, allowing for the exciting possibility that many more, previously unknown small proteins might be encoded in the genome, waiting to be discovered. This review will give an overview of the steadily growing microprotein field, focusing on eukaryotic small proteins. We will discuss emerging themes in the molecular action of microproteins, as well as advances and challenges in microprotein identification and characterization.