The Salmonella riboswitch is the first to sense and respond to a metal ion, substantially expanding the types of molecules that riboswitches can detect to help cells assess and react to their environment.
First identified in 2002, riboswitches sense when a protein is needed and stop the creation of the protein if it isn't. That in itself isn't remarkable--scientists have been aware for decades of sensors in the cell that can cause molecules to bind to DNA to turn protein production on and off.
A riboswitch, however, doesn't rely on anything binding to DNA; instead, the switch is incorporated into messages for construction of proteins. These messages are protein-building instructions copied from DNA into strands of RNA. The riboswitch is a sensor within the RNA that can twist it into different configurations that block or facilitate the production of the protein encoded in the message.
Previously identified riboswitches respond to organic compounds such as nucleotides and sugars. The Salmonella riboswitch, reported in the April 7 issue of the journal Cell, responds to magnesium ions, key elements in the stability of cell membranes and reactants in an energy-making process that fuels most cells.
"Magnesium ions are essential to the stability of several different critical processes and structures in the cell, so there has to be a fairly intricate set of regulators to maintain consistent levels of it," says senior investigator Eduardo A. Groisman, Ph.D., professor of molecular microbiology. "To approach such a complex system, we study it in a simpler organism, the Salmonella bacterium."
Groisman and his colleagues uncovered the magnesium riboswitch while they were investigating the MgtA gene, which is controlled by the major
Contact: Michael Purdy
Washington University School of Medicine