RNA methylation by radical SAM enzymes RlmN and Cfr proceeds via methylene transfer and hydride shift

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011 Mar 8;108(10):3930-4. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1017781108. Epub 2011 Feb 22.


RlmN and Cfr are Radical SAM enzymes that modify a single adenosine nucleotide--A2503--in 23S ribosomal RNA. This nucleotide is positioned within the peptidyl transferase center of the ribosome, which is a target of numerous antibiotics. An unusual feature of these enzymes is their ability to carry out methylation of amidine carbons of the adenosine substrate. To gain insight into the mechanism of methylation catalyzed by RlmN and Cfr, deuterium labeling experiments were carried out. These experiments demonstrate that the newly introduced methyl group is assembled from an S-adenosyl-L-methionine (SAM)-derived methylene fragment and a hydrogen atom that had migrated from the substrate amidine carbon. Rather than activating the adenosine nucleotide of the substrate by hydrogen atom abstraction from an amidine carbon, the 5'-deoxyadenosyl radical abstracts hydrogen from the second equivalent of SAM to form the SAM-derived radical cation. This species, or its corresponding sulfur ylide, subsequently adds into the substrate, initiating hydride shift and S-adenosylhomocysteine elimination to complete the formation of the methyl group. These findings indicate that rather than acting as methyltransferases, RlmN and Cfr are methyl synthases. Together with the previously described 5'-deoxyadenosyl and 3-amino-3-carboxypropyl radicals, these findings demonstrate that all three carbon atoms attached to the sulfonium center in SAM can serve as precursors to carbon-derived radicals in enzymatic reactions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Alkenes / metabolism*
  • Base Sequence
  • Chromatography, High Pressure Liquid
  • DNA Primers
  • Escherichia coli / enzymology
  • Escherichia coli / genetics
  • Escherichia coli / metabolism
  • Escherichia coli Proteins / metabolism*
  • Methylation
  • Methyltransferases / metabolism*
  • Polymerase Chain Reaction
  • RNA, Bacterial / metabolism*
  • S-Adenosylmethionine / metabolism*
  • Spectrometry, Mass, Electrospray Ionization


  • Alkenes
  • DNA Primers
  • Escherichia coli Proteins
  • RNA, Bacterial
  • S-Adenosylmethionine
  • Cfr protein, E coli
  • Methyltransferases
  • RlmN protein, E coli