Toxin-antitoxin (TA) systems are widespread in bacteria and archaea and play important roles in a diverse range of cellular activities. TA systems have been broadly classified into 5 types and the targets of the toxins are diverse, but the most frequently used cellular target is mRNA. Toxins that target mRNA to inhibit translation can be classified as ribosome-dependent or ribosome-independent RNA interferases. These RNA interferases are sequence-specific endoribonucleases that cleave RNA at specific sequences. Despite limited sequence similarity, ribosome-independent RNA interferases belong to a limited number of structural classes. The MazF structural family includes MazF, Kid, ParE and CcdB toxins. MazF members cleave mRNA at 3-, 5- or 7-base recognition sequences in different bacteria and have been implicated in controlling cell death (programmed) and cell growth, and cellular responses to nutrient starvation, antibiotics, heat and oxidative stress. VapC endoribonucleases belong to the PIN-domain family and inhibit translation by either cleaving tRNA(fMet) in the anticodon stem loop, cleaving mRNA at -AUA(U/A)-hairpin-G- sequences or by sequence-specific RNA binding. VapC has been implicated in controlling bacterial growth in the intracellular environment and in microbial adaptation to nutrient limitation (nitrogen, carbon) and heat shock. ToxN shows structural homology to MazF and is also a sequence-specific endoribonuclease. ToxN confers phage resistance by causing cell death upon phage infection by cleaving cellular and phage RNAs, thereby interfering with bacterial and phage growth. Notwithstanding our recent progress in understanding ribonuclease action and function in TA systems, the environmental triggers that cause release of the toxin from its cognate antitoxin and the precise cellular function of these systems in many bacteria remain to be discovered. This article is part of a Special Issue entitled: RNA Decay mechanisms.
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