Insights into RNA design from novel molecular tools

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2017-01-09

Authors

Vazquez Anderson, Alberto Jorge

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Abstract

RNA, previously recognized merely as a messenger of genetic information, has been recently rediscovered as a versatile molecule with a central role in cellular regulation. These regulatory functions are enabled by its specific chemical makeup that allows it to fold into intricate and flexible structures. In stark contrast with DNA, RNA forms a variety of structural motifs that serve as efficient points of contact in molecular recognition. It is therefore clear, that dynamic RNA structures dictate the binding availability of interfaces that play important roles in molecular regulation inside living cells. As such, the need for tools that can accurately capture and predict RNA structure in vivo continues to be essential to understand RNA function. To this end, my dissertation focuses on the development of molecular tools to predict and characterize accessible RNA interfaces in their native environment. First, I established the usefulness of a fluorescence-based in vivo oligonucleotide hybridization approach to identify accessible interfaces by characterizing numerous RNA regions in several biologically relevant molecules in E. coli. I then described these RNA interactions using a biophysical model based on thermodynamic principles and incorporating large sets of data collected using this fluorescence-based system. This approach displayed improved prediction capabilities of RNA accessibility compared to un-optimized versions without incorporation of in vivo data. Finally, I detailed the development and application of a high throughput tool for the large-scale characterization of accessible interfaces within native RNAs in a single experiment. In this approach, in vivo oligonucleotide hybridization was coupled to transcriptional elongation control to allow analysis via next generation sequencing. This tool was used to obtain complete landscapes of functional structure for 72 regulatory molecules in a single experiment (>1000 regions). Altogether the results of this high throughput approach revealed a pattern indicating that RNA-RNA interaction sites are either highly accessible or highly protected, suggesting their binding status (e.g. actively bound or unbound). In addition, within bacterial small RNAs, our approached revealed the role of the global regulator Hfq as universal structural relaxer. The compendium of these tools provides a unique and fundamental perspective in the study of functional RNA structure, namely, the identification of dynamic structures. Furthermore, the information provided by these approaches significantly aids in the design of synthetic RNAs for a variety of purposes, including gene expression control.

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