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Carbonell, A.; Flores, R.; Gago, S.; Hammerhead Ribozymes Against Virus and Viroid RNAs (Erdmann, V. A. & Barciszewski, J., eds.). RNA Technologies 411-427, (2012) ISBN: 978-3-642-27426-8 DOI: 10.1007/978-3-642-27426-8_16

The hammerhead ribozyme, a small catalytic motif that promotes self-cleavage of the RNAs in which it is found naturally embedded, can be manipulated to recognize and cleave specifically in trans other RNAs in the presence of Mg2+. To be really effective, hammerheads need to operate at the low concentration of Mg2+ existing in vivo. Evidence has been gathered along the last years showing that tertiary stabilizing motifs (TSMs), particularly interactions between peripheral loops, are critical for the catalytic activity of hammerheads at physiological levels of Mg2+. These TSMs, in two alternative formats, have been incorporated into a new generation of more efficient trans-cleaving hammerheads, some of which are active in vitro and in planta when targeted against the highly structured RNA of a viroid (a small plant pathogen). This strategy has potential to confer protection against other RNA replicons, like RNA viruses infecting plants and animals.

Flores, R.; Gas, M.-E.; Molina-Serrano, D.; Nohales, M.-?.; Carbonell, A.; Gago, S.; De la Peña, M.; Daròs, J.-A.; Viroid Replication: Rolling-Circles, Enzymes and Ribozymes Viruses 1, 317-334, (2009) DOI: 10.3390/v1020317

Viroids, due to their small size and lack of protein-coding capacity, must rely essentially on their hosts for replication. Intriguingly, viroids have evolved the ability to replicate in two cellular organella, the nucleus (family Pospiviroidae) and the chloroplast (family Avsunviroidae). Viroid replication proceeds through an RNA-based rolling-circle mechanism with three steps that, with some variations, operate in both polarity strands: i) synthesis of longer-than-unit strands catalyzed by either the nuclear RNA polymerase II or a nuclear-encoded chloroplastic RNA polymerase, in both instances redirected to transcribe RNA templates, ii) cleavage to unit-length, which in the family Avsunviroidae is mediated by hammerhead ribozymes embedded in both polarity strands, while in the family Pospiviroidae the oligomeric RNAs provide the proper conformation but not the catalytic activity, and iii) circularization. The host RNA polymerases, most likely assisted by additional host proteins, start transcription from specific sites, thus implying the existence of viroid promoters. Cleavage and ligation in the family Pospiviroidae is probably catalyzed by an RNase III-like enzyme and an RNA ligase able to circularize the resulting 5’ and 3’ termini. Whether a chloroplastic RNA ligase mediates circularization in the family Avsunviroidae, or this reaction is autocatalytic, remains an open issue.

De la Peña, M.; Gago, S.; Flores, R.; Peripheral regions of natural hammerhead ribozymes greatly increase their self-cleavage activity EMBO J. 22, 5561-5570, (2003) DOI: 10.1093/emboj/cdg530

Natural hammerhead ribozymes are mostly found in some viroid and viroid‐like RNAs and catalyze their cis cleavage during replication. Hammerheads have been manipulated to act in trans and assumed to have a similar catalytic behavior in this artificial context. However, we show here that two natural cis‐acting hammerheads self‐cleave much faster than trans‐acting derivatives and other reported artificial hammerheads. Moreover, modifications of the peripheral loops 1 and 2 of one of these natural hammerheads induced a >100‐fold reduction of the self‐cleavage constant, whereas engineering a trans‐acting artificial hammerhead into a cis derivative by introducing a loop 1 had no effect. These data show that regions external to the central conserved core of natural hammerheads play a role in catalysis, and suggest the existence of tertiary interactions between these peripheral regions. The interactions, determined by the sequence and size of loops 1 and 2 and most likely of helices I and II, must result from natural selection and should be studied in order to better understand the hammerhead requirements in vivo.
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