Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Programmed −1 frameshifting efficiency correlates with RNA pseudoknot conformational plasticity, not resistance to mechanical unfolding

Dustin B. Ritchie, Daniel A. N. Foster, and Michael T. Woodside

Programmed −1 frameshifting, whereby the reading frame of a ribosome on messenger RNA is shifted in order to generate an alternate gene product, is often triggered by a pseudoknot structure in the mRNA in combination with an upstream slippery sequence. The efficiency of frameshifting varies widely for different sites, but the factors that determine frameshifting efficiency are not yet fully understood. Previous work has suggested that frameshifting efficiency is related to the resistance of the pseudoknot against mechanical unfolding. We tested this hypothesis by studying the mechanical properties of a panel of pseudoknots with frameshifting efficiencies ranging from 2% to 30%: four pseudoknots from retroviruses, two from luteoviruses, one from a coronavirus, and a nonframeshifting bacteriophage pseudoknot. Using optical tweezers to apply tension across the RNA, we measured the distribution of forces required to unfold each pseudoknot. We found that neither the average unfolding force, nor the unfolding kinetics, nor the parameters describing the energy landscape for mechanical unfolding of the pseudoknot (energy barrier height and distance to the transition state) could be correlated to frameshifting efficiency. These results indicate that the resistance of pseudoknots to mechanical unfolding is not a primary determinant of frameshifting efficiency. However, increased frameshifting efficiency was correlated with an increased tendency to form alternate, incompletely folded structures, suggesting a more complex picture of the role of the pseudoknot involving the conformational dynamics.
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