Among the different cellular surveillance mechanisms that ensure accurate gene expression, nonsense-mediated mRNA decay rapidly degrades mRNAs harbouring PTCs (premature translation-termination codons) and thereby prevents the accumulation of potentially deleterious proteins with C-terminal truncations. In the present article, I review recent data from yeast, fluitflies, nematode worms and human cells and endeavour to merge these results into a unified model for recognition of nonsense mRNA. According to this model, the distinction between translation termination at PTCs and at ‘normal’ termination codons relies on the physical distance between the terminating ribosome and PABP [poly(A)-binding protein]. Correct translation termination is promoted by a PABP-mediated signal to the terminating ribosome, whereas the absence of this signal leads to the assembly of an mRNA decay-promoting protein complex including the conserved NMD factors UPF (up-frameshift) 1–3.

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