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Using R2D2 to Understand RNA Folding

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If you love learning more about biology at a fundamental level, I have a great video for you! It simulates the 3D folding of RNA. RNA is a single stranded molecule, but it is still capable of forming internal loops that can be stabilized by base pairing, just like its famously double-stranded parent, DNA. Understanding more about RNA folding may be valuable in many different areas of biomedical research, including developing ways to help people with RNA-related diseases, such as certain cancers and neuromuscular disorders, and designing better mRNA vaccines against infectious disease threats (like COVID-19).

Because RNA folding starts even while an RNA is still being made in the cell, the process has proven hugely challenging to follow closely. An innovative solution, shown in this video, comes from the labs of NIH grantees Julius Lucks, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, and Alan Chen, State University of New York at Albany. The team, led by graduate student Angela Yu and including several diehard Star Wars fans, realized that to visualize RNA folding they needed a technology platform that, like a Star Wars droid, is able to “see” things that others can’t. So, they created R2D2, which is short for Reconstructing RNA Dynamics from Data.

What’s so groundbreaking about the R2D2 approach, which was published recently in Molecular Cell, is that it combines experimental data on RNA folding at the nucleotide level with predictive algorithms at the atomic level to simulate RNA folding in ultra-slow motion [1]. While other computer simulations have been available for decades, they have lacked much-needed experimental data of this complex folding process to confirm their mathematical modeling.

As a gene is transcribed into RNA one building block, or nucleotide, at a time, the elongating RNA strand folds immediately before the whole molecule is fully assembled. But such folding can create a problem: the new strand can tie itself up into a knot-like structure that’s incompatible with the shape it needs to function in a cell.

To slip this knot, the cell has evolved immediate corrective pathways, or countermoves. In this R2D2 video, you can see one countermove called a toehold-mediated strand displacement. In this example, the maneuver is performed by an ancient molecule called a single recognition particle (SRP) RNA. Though SRP RNAs are found in all forms of life, this one comes from the bacterium Escherichia coli and is made up of 114 nucleotides.

The colors in this video highlight different domains of the RNA molecule, all at different stages in the folding process. Some (orange, turquoise) have already folded properly, while another domain (dark purple) is temporarily knotted. For this knotted domain to slip its knot, about 5 seconds into the video, another newly forming region (fuchsia) wiggles down to gain a “toehold.” About 9 seconds in, the temporarily knotted domain untangles and unwinds, and, finally, at about 23 seconds, the strand starts to get reconfigured into the shape it needs to do its job in the cell.

Why would evolution favor such a seemingly inefficient folding process? Well, it might not be inefficient as it first appears. In fact, as Chen noted, some nanotechnologists previously invented toehold displacement as a design principle for generating synthetic DNA and RNA circuits. Little did they know that nature may have scooped them many millennia ago!


[1] Computationally reconstructing cotranscriptional RNA folding from experimental data reveals rearrangement of non-naïve folding intermediates. Yu AM, Gasper PM Cheng L, Chen AA, Lucks JB, et. al. Molecular Cell 8, 1-14. 18 February 2021.


Ribonucleic Acid (RNA) (National Human Genome Research Institute/NIH)

Chen Lab (State University of New York at Albany)

Lucks Laboratory (Northwestern University, Evanston IL)

NIH Support: National Institute of General Medical Sciences; Common Fund

A Lean, Mean DNA Packaging Machine

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Three views of bacteriophage T4

Credit: Victor Padilla-Sanchez, The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.

All plants and animals are susceptible to viral infections. But did you know that’s also true for bacteria? They get nailed by viruses called bacteriophages, and there are thousands of them in nature including this one that resembles a lunar lander: bacteriophage T4 (left panel). It’s a popular model organism that researchers have studied for nearly a century, helping them over the years to learn more about biochemistry, genetics, and molecular biology [1].

The bacteriophage T4 infects the bacterium Escherichia coli, which normally inhabits the gastrointestinal tract of humans. T4’s invasion starts by touching down on the bacterial cell wall and injecting viral DNA through its tube-like tail (purple) into the cell. A DNA “packaging machine” (middle and right panels) between the bacteriophage’s “head” and “tail” (green, yellow, blue spikes) keeps the double-stranded DNA (middle panel, red) at the ready. All the vivid colors you see in the images help to distinguish between the various proteins or protein subunits that make up the intricate structure of the bacteriophage and its DNA packaging machine.

Creative Minds: Giving Bacteria Needles to Fight Intestinal Disease

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Cammie Lesser

Cammie Lesser

For Salmonella and many other disease-causing bacteria that find their way into our bodies, infection begins with a poke. That’s because these bad bugs are equipped with a needle-like protein filament that punctures the outer membrane of human cells and then, like a syringe, injects dozens of toxic proteins that help them replicate.

Cammie Lesser at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Cambridge, and her colleagues are now on a mission to bioengineer strains of bacteria that don’t cause disease to make these same syringes, called type III secretion systems. The goal is to use such “good” bacteria to deliver therapeutic molecules, rather than toxins, to human cells. Their first target is the gastrointestinal tract, where they hope to knock out hard-to-beat bacterial infections or to relieve the chronic inflammation that comes with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

Snapshots of Life: Fighting Urinary Tract Infections

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Urinary tract infection in a mouse

Source: Valerie O’Brien, Matthew Joens, Scott J. Hultgren, James A.J. Fitzpatrick, Washington University, St. Louis

For patients who’ve succeeded in knocking out a bad urinary tract infection (UTI) with antibiotic treatment, it’s frustrating to have that uncomfortable burning sensation flare back up. Researchers are hopeful that this striking work of science and art can help them better understand why severe UTIs leave people at greater risk of subsequent infection, as well as find ways to stop the vicious cycle.

Here you see the bladder (blue) of a laboratory mouse that was re-infected 24 hours earlier with the bacterium Escherichia coli (pink), a common cause of UTIs. White blood cells (yellow) reach out with what appear to be stringy extracellular traps to immobilize and kill the bacteria.

Cool Videos: Making Multicolored Waves in Cell Biology

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Bacteria are single-cell organisms that reproduce by dividing in half. Proteins within these cells organize themselves in a number of fascinating ways during this process, including a recently discovered mechanism that makes the mesmerizing pattern of waves, or oscillations, you see in this video. Produced when the protein MinE chases the protein MinD from one end of the cell to the other, such oscillations are thought to center the cell’s division machinery so that its two new “daughter cells” will be the same size.

To study these dynamic patterns in greater detail, Anthony Vecchiarelli purified MinD and MinE proteins from the bacterium Escherichia coli. Vecchiarelli, who at the time was a postdoc in Kiyoshi Mizuuchi’s intramural lab at NIH’s National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), labeled the proteins with fluorescent markers and placed them on a synthetic membrane, where their movements were then visualized by total internal reflection fluorescence microscopy. The proteins self-organized and generated dynamic spirals of waves: MinD (blue, left); MinE (red, right); and both MinD and MinE (purple, center) [1].

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