Spot the regulators

A new approach to detect regulatory RNAs in bacteria gives surprising insights into these sequences.

Mapping of RNA ends led to the discovery of regulatory RNAs encoded within protein coding sequences. Image credit: NIH Medical Arts (CCBY 4.0)

In most organisms, specific segments of a cell’s genetic information are copied to form single-stranded molecules of various sizes and purposes. Each of these RNA molecules, as they are known, is constructed as a chain that starts at the 5´ end and terminates at the 3´ end.

Certain RNAs carry the information present in a gene, which provides the instructions that a cell needs to build proteins. Some, however, are ‘non-coding’ and instead act to fine-tune the activity of other RNAs. These regulatory RNAs can be separate from the RNAs they control, or they can be embedded in the very sequences they regulate; new evidence also shows that certain regulatory RNAs can act in both ways.

Many regulatory RNAs are yet to be catalogued, even in simple, well-studied species such as the bacterium Escherichia coli. Here, Adams et al. aimed to better characterize the regulatory RNAs present in E. coli by mapping out the 3´ ends of every RNA molecule in the bacterium.

This revealed many new regulatory RNAs and offered insights into where these sequences are located. For instance, the results show that several of these RNAs were embedded within RNA produced from larger genes. Some were nested in coding RNAs, and were parts of a longer RNA sequence that is adjacent to the protein coding segment. Others, however, were present within the instructions that code for a protein.

The work by Adams et al. reveals that regulatory RNAs can be located in unexpected places, and provides a method for identifying them. This can be applied to other types of bacteria, in particular in species with few known RNA regulators.