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Optical Tweezers to Study RNA-Protein Interactions in Translation Regulation

Published: February 12th, 2022



1Helmholtz Institute for RNA-based Infection Research (HIRI), Helmholtz Zentrum für Infektionsforschung (Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research), 2Medical Faculty, Julius-Maximilians University Würzburg

This protocol presents a complete experimental workflow for studying RNA-protein interactions using optical tweezers. Several possible experimental setups are outlined including the combination of optical tweezers with confocal microscopy.

RNA adopts diverse structural folds, which are essential for its functions and thereby can impact diverse processes in the cell. In addition, the structure and function of an RNA can be modulated by various trans-acting factors, such as proteins, metabolites or other RNAs. Frameshifting RNA molecules, for instance, are regulatory RNAs located in coding regions, which direct translating ribosomes into an alternative open reading frame, and thereby act as gene switches. They may also adopt different folds after binding to proteins or other trans-factors. To dissect the role of RNA-binding proteins in translation and how they modulate RNA structure and stability, it is crucial to study the interplay and mechanical features of these RNA-protein complexes simultaneously. This work illustrates how to employ single-molecule-fluorescence-coupled optical tweezers to explore the conformational and thermodynamic landscape of RNA-protein complexes at a high resolution. As an example, the interaction of the SARS-CoV-2 programmed ribosomal frameshifting element with the trans-acting factor short isoform of zinc-finger antiviral protein is elaborated. In addition, fluorescence-labeled ribosomes were monitored using the confocal unit, which would ultimately enable the study of translation elongation. The fluorescence coupled OT assay can be widely applied to explore diverse RNA-protein complexes or trans-acting factors regulating translation and could facilitate studies of RNA-based gene regulation.

Transfer of genetic information from DNA to proteins through mRNAs is a complex biochemical process, which is precisely regulated on all levels through macromolecular interactions inside cells. For translational regulation, RNA-protein interactions confer a critical role to rapidly react to various stimuli and signals1,2. Some RNA-protein interactions affect mRNA stability and thereby alter the time an RNA is translationally active. Other RNA-protein interactions are associated with recoding mechanisms such as stop-codon readthrough, bypassing, or programmed ribosomal frameshifting (PRF)3

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1. Sample preparation

  1. Clone the sequence of interest into the vector containing the Lambda DNA fragments, which serve as the handle sequences (Figure 2)43,50.
  2. First generate a DNA template for subsequent in vitro transcription via PCR (Figure 2B; reaction 1). At this PCR step, the T7 promoter is added in the 5' end of the sense DNA molecule

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In this section, focus is mainly given on measurements of RNA-protein/ligand interactions by the fluorescence optical tweezers. For a description of general RNA optical tweezers experiments and corresponding representative results, see32. For more detailed discussion of the RNA/DNA-protein interactions, also see1,2,26,59,60.

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Here, we demonstrate the use of fluorescence-coupled optical tweezers to study interactions and dynamic behavior of RNA molecules with various ligands. Below, critical steps and limitations of the present technique are discussed.

Critical steps in the protocol
As for many other methods, the quality of the sample is pivotal to obtain reliable data. Therefore, to obtain the highest possible quality samples, it is worth it to spend time to optimize the procedure for sample .......

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We thank Anuja Kibe and Jun. Prof. Redmond Smyth for critically reviewing the manuscript. We thank Tatyana Koch for expert technical assistance. We thank Kristyna Pekarkova for the help with recording experimental videos. The work in our laboratory is supported by the Helmholtz Association and funding from the European Research Council (ERC) Grant Nr. 948636 (to NC).


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Name Company Catalog Number Comments
Bacterial Strains
E. coli HB101 lab collection N/A cloning of the vectors
Chemicals and enzymes
Sodium chloride Sigma-Aldrich 31424 Buffers
Biotin-16-dUTP Roche 11093070910 Biotinylation
BSA Sigma-Aldrich A4737 Buffers
Catalase Lumicks N/A Oxygen scavanger system
Dithiothreitol (DTT) Melford Labs D11000 Buffers
DNAse I from bovine pancreas Sigma-Aldrich D4527 in vitro transcription
dNTPs Th.Geyer 11786181 PCR
EDTA Sigma-Aldrich E9884 Buffers
Formamide Sigma-Aldrich 11814320001 Buffers
Glucose Sigma-Aldrich G8270-1KG Oxygen scavanger system
Glucose-oxidase Lumicks N/A Oxygen scavanger system
HEPES Carl Roth HN78.3 Buffers
Magnesium chloride Carl Roth 2189.1 Buffers
Phusion DNA polymerase NEB M0530L Gibson assembly, cloning
Potassium chloride Merck 529552-1KG Buffers
PrimeSTAR GXL DNA Polymerase Takara Bio Clontech R050A PCR
Pyrophosphotase, thermostabile, inorganic NEB M0296L in vitro transcription
RNase Inhibitor Molox 1000379515 Buffers
rNTPS life technologies R0481 in vitro transcription
Sodium thiosulophate Sigma-Aldrich S6672-500G Bleach deactivation
Sytox Green Lumicks N/A confocal measurements
T4 DNA Polymerase NEB M0203S Biotinylation
T5 exonuclease NEB M0363S Gibson assembly, cloning
T7 RNA polymerase Produced in-house N/A in vitro transcription
Taq DNA polymerase NEB M0267S PCR
Taq ligase Biozym L6060L Gibson assembly, cloning
TWEEN 20 BioXtra Sigma-Aldrich P7949 Buffers
Monolith Protein Labeling Kit RED-NHS 2nd Generation (Amine Reactive) Nanotemper MO-L011 Used for ribosome labeling
Purefrex 2.0 GeneFrontier PF201-0.25-EX Ribosomes used for the labeling
5' handle T7 forward Microsynth custom order 5’ - CTTAATACGACTCACTATAGGTC
CTTTCTGTGGACGCC - 3’, used to generate OT in vitro transcription template in PCR 1
3’ handle reverse Microsynth custom order 5' -  GTCAAAGTGCGCCCCGTTATCC - 3', used to generate OT in vitro transcription template in PCR 1
5' handle forward Microsynth custom order 5' - TCCTTTCTGTGGACGCCGC - 3' , used to generate 5' handle in PCR 2
5’ handle reverse Microsynth custom order 5’ - CATAAATACCTCTTTACTAATATA
TATACCTTCGTAAGCTAGCGT - 3’, used to generate 5' handle in PCR 2
3’ handle forward Microsynth custom order 5' - ATCCTGCAACCTGCTCTTCGCC
AG - 3', used to generate 3' handle in PCR 3
3’ handle reverse 5’labeled with digoxigenin Microsynth custom order 5' -[Dig]-GTCAAAGTGCGCCCCGTTATCC - 3', used to generate 3' handle in PCR 3
DNA vectors
pMZ_OT produced in-house N/A further description in "Structural studies of Cardiovirus 2A protein reveal the molecular basis for RNA recognition and translational control"
Chris H. Hill, Sawsan Napthine, Lukas Pekarek, Anuja Kibe, Andrew E. Firth, Stephen C. Graham, Neva Caliskan, Ian Brierley
bioRxiv 2020.08.11.245035; doi:
Software and Algorithms
Atom N/A
Bluelake Lumicks N/A
Graphpad N/A
InkScape 0.92.3 N/A
Matlab N/A
RNAstructure N/A
Spyder N/A
Streptavidin Coated Polystyrene Particles, 1.5-1.9 µm, 5 ml, 1.0% w/v Spherotech SVP-15-5
Anti-digoxigenin Coated Polystyrene Particles, 2.0-2.4 µm, 2 ml, 0.1% w/v Spherotech DIGP-20-2
Syringes VWR TERUMO SS+03L1
C-trap Lumicks N/A  optical tweezers coupled with confocal microscopy

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