Native tertiary structure and nucleoside modifications suppress tRNA's intrinsic ability to activate the innate immune sensor PKR

PLoS One. 2013;8(3):e57905. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0057905. Epub 2013 Mar 4.


Interferon inducible protein kinase PKR is an essential component of innate immunity. It is activated by long stretches of dsRNA and provides the first line of host defense against pathogens by inhibiting translation initiation in the infected cell. Many cellular and viral transcripts contain nucleoside modifications and/or tertiary structure that could affect PKR activation. We have previously demonstrated that a 5'-end triphosphate-a signature of certain viral and bacterial transcripts-confers the ability of relatively unstructured model RNA transcripts to activate PKR to inhibit translation, and that this activation is abrogated by certain modifications present in cellular RNAs. In order to understand the biological implications of native RNA tertiary structure and nucleoside modifications on PKR activation, we study here the heavily modified cellular tRNAs and the unmodified or the lightly modified mitochondrial tRNAs (mt-tRNA). We find that both a T7 transcript of yeast tRNA(Phe) and natively extracted total bovine liver mt-tRNA activate PKR in vitro, whereas native E. coli, bovine liver, yeast, and wheat tRNA(Phe) do not, nor do a variety of base- or sugar-modified T7 transcripts. These results are further supported by activation of PKR by a natively folded T7 transcript of tRNA(Phe)in vivo supporting the importance of tRNA modification in suppressing PKR activation in cells. We also examine PKR activation by a T7 transcript of the A14G pathogenic mutant of mt-tRNA(Leu), which is known to dimerize, and find that the misfolded dimeric form activates PKR in vitro while the monomeric form does not. Overall, the in vitro and in vivo findings herein indicate that tRNAs have an intrinsic ability to activate PKR and that nucleoside modifications and native RNA tertiary folding may function, at least in part, to suppress such activation, thus serving to distinguish self and non-self tRNA in innate immunity.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Base Sequence
  • Cattle
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Dimerization
  • Enzyme Activation
  • Humans
  • Immunity, Innate / immunology*
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Mutation / genetics
  • Nucleic Acid Conformation*
  • Nucleosides / metabolism*
  • Protein Binding
  • RNA / chemistry
  • RNA / genetics
  • RNA, Mitochondrial
  • RNA, Transfer / chemistry*
  • RNA, Transfer / genetics
  • RNA, Transfer / metabolism*
  • Saccharomyces cerevisiae / metabolism
  • eIF-2 Kinase / metabolism*


  • Nucleosides
  • RNA, Mitochondrial
  • RNA
  • RNA, Transfer
  • eIF-2 Kinase