Conformational heterogeneity of the SAM-I riboswitch transcriptional on state: A chaperone-like role for S-adenosyl methionine

Wei Huang, Joohyun Kim, Shantenu Jha, Fareed Aboul-Ela

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


Riboswitches are promising targets for the design of novel antibiotics and engineering of portable genetic regulatory elements. There is evidence that variability in riboswitch properties allows tuning of expression for genes involved in different stages of biosynthetic pathways by mechanisms that are not currently understood. Here, we explore the mechanism for tuning of S-adenosyl methionine (SAM)-I riboswitch folding. Most SAM-I riboswitches function at the transcriptional level by sensing the cognate ligand SAM. SAM-I riboswitches orchestrate the biosynthetic pathways of cysteine, methionine, SAM, and so forth. We use base-pair probability predictions to examine the secondary-structure folding landscape of several SAM-I riboswitch sequences. We predict different folding behaviors for different SAM-I riboswitch sequences. We identify several "decoy" base-pairing interactions involving 5′ riboswitch residues that can compete with the formation of a P1 helix, a component of the ligand-bound "transcription OFF" state, in the absence of SAM. We hypothesize that blockage of these interactions through SAM contacts contributes to stabilization of the OFF state in the presence of ligand. We also probe folding patterns for a SAM-I riboswitch RNA using constructs with different 3′ truncation points experimentally. Folding was monitored through fluorescence, susceptibility to base-catalyzed cleavage, nuclear magnetic resonance, and indirectly through SAM binding. We identify key decision windows at which SAM can affect the folding pathway towards the OFF state. The presence of decoy conformations and differential sensitivities to SAM at different transcript lengths is crucial for SAM-I riboswitches to modulate gene expression in the context of global cellular metabolism.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)331-349
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of molecular biology
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 18 2012

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Structural Biology
  • Molecular Biology


  • RNA
  • conformation ensemble
  • dimmer switch
  • riboswitch
  • secondary-structure prediction


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