Riboswitches: discovery of drugs that target bacterial gene-regulatory RNAs

Acc Chem Res. 2011 Dec 20;44(12):1329-38. doi: 10.1021/ar200039b. Epub 2011 May 26.


Riboswitches are messenger RNA (mRNA) domains that regulate gene function in response to the intracellular concentration of a variety of metabolites and second messengers. They control essential genes in many pathogenic bacteria, thus representing an inviting new class of biomolecular target for the development of antibiotics and chemical-biological tools. In this Account, we briefly review the discovery of riboswitches in the first years of the 21st century and their ensuing characterization over the past decade. We then discuss the progress achieved so far in using riboswitches as a focus for drug discovery, considering both the value of past serendipity and the particular challenges that confront current researchers. Five mechanisms of gene regulation have been determined for riboswitches. Most bacterial riboswitches modulate either transcription termination or translation initiation in response to ligand binding. All known examples of eukaryotic riboswitches, and some bacterial riboswitches, control gene expression by alternative splicing. The glmS riboswitch, which is widespread in Gram-positive bacteria, is a catalytic RNA activated by ligand binding: its self-cleavage destabilizes the mRNA of which it is part. Finally, one example of a trans-acting riboswitch is known. Three-dimensional structures have been determined for representatives of 13 structurally distinct riboswitch classes, providing atomic-level insight into their mechanisms of ligand recognition. While cellular and viral RNAs have attracted widespread interest as potential drug targets, riboswitches show special promise due to the diversity of small-molecule recognition strategies that are on display in their ligand-binding pockets. Moreover, riboswitches have evolved to recognize small-molecule ligands, which is unique among known structured RNA domains. Structural and biochemical advances in the study of riboswitches provide an impetus for the development of methods for the discovery of novel riboswitch activators and inhibitors. Recent rational drug design efforts focused on select riboswitch classes have yielded a small number of candidate antibiotic compounds, including one active in a mouse model of Staphylococcus aureus infection. The development of high-throughput methods suitable for riboswitch-specific drug discovery is ongoing. A fragment-based screening approach employing equilibrium dialysis that may be generically useful has demonstrated early success. Riboswitch-mediated gene regulation is widely employed by bacteria; however, only the thiamine pyrophosphate-responsive riboswitch has thus far been found in eukaryotes. Thus, riboswitches are particularly attractive as targets for antibacterials. Indeed, antimicrobials with previously unknown mechanisms have been found to function by binding riboswitches and causing aberrant gene expression.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Alternative Splicing
  • Animals
  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / chemistry
  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / pharmacology*
  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / therapeutic use
  • Bacterial Proteins / metabolism
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Drug Design
  • Drug Evaluation, Preclinical
  • Gram-Negative Bacteria / metabolism
  • Mice
  • Nucleic Acid Conformation
  • RNA, Messenger / chemistry
  • RNA, Messenger / metabolism
  • Riboswitch / drug effects*
  • Riboswitch / genetics
  • Staphylococcal Infections / drug therapy


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents
  • Bacterial Proteins
  • RNA, Messenger
  • Riboswitch
  • component S, glutamate mutase protein, Bacteria