Are RNA thermosensors all around us?

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Are RNA thermosensors more common than we thought? Interesting article in the Journal of Experimental Biology speculating whether RNA thermometers (RNATs), well-studied in Prokaryotes, are prevalent in the other Kingdoms of Life.

Changes in the conformation of RNATs (see their Figure 1, above) typically involve melting of short regions of the mRNA, for example hairpin structures, in response to elevated temperature (a ‘zipper’ mechanism) or a shift between alternative conformations of the mRNA that involve larger regions of the molecule (a ‘switch’ mechanism).

The RNAT contains the Shine–Dalgarno (S–D) sequence (AGGAGG) that, when fully exposed, can bind to the small (30S) ribosomal subunit and allow translation to commence. The start codon (AUG) is often located eight nucleotides downstream from the S–D sequence. Thus melting of the ‘thermometer’ allows the S–D sequence and start codon to interact with the 30S subunit, promoting translation of the mRNA.

Interesting read – I wasn’t familiar with the concept of  ‘marginal stability’ – the idea that for RNA secondary and tertiary structures, thermosensor regions must have the right stability – or ‘balancing act’ – to allow temperature-driven changes in shape to take place when (and only when) a signalling function is required.

I particularly liked the section on ‘Differential translation of allelic mRNAs: another way to modulate the proteome?‘ – the concept that natural variants (allozymes) with different thermal optima can provide a species with an opportunity to establish populations with adaptively different thermal optima in regions of its biogeographic range where temperatures differ. Thus a cold-optimised allozyme might be more common in populations living in colder regions of a species’ range, whereas the warm-optimised allozyme would be dominant in warmer regions, and therefore crucially that slight changes in base composition likely alter the thermally sensitive mRNA structures that govern translational ability in a way that ensures differential translation of distinct allelic messages.

The author, George Somero, make an interesting point that we might assume that “changes in temperature often are regarded as having negative influences on macromolecular stability” adding “However, there is also a ‘good’ side to this thermal perturbation: the alteration in conformation of the macromolecule that is caused by a change in temperature can function as a thermosensing mechanism and lead to downstream changes that are adaptive to the cell.”

Exciting times lie ahead for RNA structure and temperature sensing….

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