Kirsten L. Frieda, Steven M. Block
Growing RNA chains fold cotranscriptionally as they are synthesized by RNA polymerase. Riboswitches, which regulate gene expression by adopting alternative RNA folds, are sensitive to cotranscriptional events. We developed an optical-trapping assay to follow the cotranscriptional folding of a nascent RNA and used it to monitor individual transcripts of the pbuE adenine riboswitch, visualizing distinct folding transitions. We report a particular folding signature for the riboswitch aptamer whose presence directs the gene-regulatory transcription outcome, and we measured the termination frequency as a function of adenine level and tension applied to the RNA. Our results demonstrate that the outcome is kinetically controlled. These experiments furnish a means to observe conformational switching in real time and enable the precise mapping of events during cotranscriptional folding.