Open reading frames (ORFs) with fewer than 100 codons are generally not annotated in genomes, although bona fide genes of that size are known. Newer biochemical studies have suggested that thousands of small protein-coding ORFs (smORFs) may exist in the human genome, but the true number and the biological significance of the micropeptides they encode remain uncertain. Here, we used a comparative genomics approach to identify high-confidence smORFs that are likely protein-coding. We identified 3,326 high-confidence smORFs using constraint within human populations and evolutionary conservation as additional lines of evidence. Next, we validated that, as a group, our high-confidence smORFs are conserved at the amino-acid level rather than merely residing in highly conserved non-coding regions. Finally, we found that high-confidence smORFs are enriched among disease-associated variants from GWAS. Overall, our results highlight that smORF-encoded peptides likely have important functional roles in human disease.

Original languageEnglish
Article number226
JournalBMC Genomics
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2023


  • Comparative genetics
  • Evolutionary conservation
  • Human genetic variation
  • Micropeptides
  • Small open reading frames


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