How the lysine riboswitch folds
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To respond to rapidly-changing stresses in their environment, bacterial cells must be able to sense a variety of chemical cues and respond to them by activating the relevant genes. The lysine riboswitch is a short RNA motif, located just upstream of a gene encoding a lysine biosynthesis protein, that suppresses the expression of that gene when sufficient lysine is present in the cell. It acts by binding a lysine monomer in a region called the aptamer, which in turn rearranges an adjacent domain called the expression platform, sequestering the ‘start’ sequence of the gene and preventing it from being transcribed. In this thesis, the lysine riboswitch’s ligand-binding transition is studied using single-molecule fluorescence microscopy, optical tweezers, and a hybrid optical force/fluorescence technique. Förster Resonance Energy Transfer (FRET) is used with a fluorescently-labeled aptamer to show that it has a previously-undescribed, partially-folded structural state with enhanced ligand affinity compared to the unfolded structure. The Mg²⁺ dependence of the transition between these states is shown to resolve existing debates in the literature about the sensitivity of the riboswitch. The kinetics of the folding transition are explored using FRET, optical force, and hybrid ‘Fleezers’ to map the free energy landscape of ligand binding and show that the ligand itself promotes transitions into the aptamer’s folded state, a so-called ‘induced fit’ mechanism rare among riboswitches. Finally, high-resolution optical tweezers are used to explore the link between the aptamer’s secondary structure (the sequence of paired nucleotides) and its tertiary structure (three-dimensional folding) to illuminate the role of ligand binding in gene regulation, which depends on the equilibrium between competing secondary structures. Hybrid biophysical techniques like optical force/fluorescence microscopy are shown to be indispensable for addressing all the states in the reaction pathways of complex biomolecules like riboswitches and for discriminating between multiple levels of structure formation and interaction with the environment. Not only do the results presented here shed light on the RNA folding problem, particularly the role of tertiary structure in determining the minimum-energy configuration of an RNA sequence, but they could have implications for biomedical research, as the lysine riboswitch has already been shown to be a potential target for next-generation antibiotics.
Thesis, PhD Doctor of Philosophy
Embargo Date: 2021-02-09
Embargo Reason: Thesis restricted in accordance with University regulations. Print and electronic copy restricted until 9th February 2021