Many non-coding and regulatory RNA elements have evolved to exploit transient or metastable structures that emerge during transcription to control complex folding pathways or to encode dynamic functions. However, efforts to engineer synthetic RNA devices have mostly focused on the thermodynamically stable structures. Consequently, significant challenges and opportunities exist in engineering functional RNAs that explicitly take advantage of cotranscriptionally generated transient or metastable structures. In this work, we designed a short RNA sequence that adopts a robust metastable structure when transcribed by an RNA polymerase. Although the metastable structure persists for hours at low temperature, it refolds almost completely into the thermodynamically stable structure upon heat denaturation followed by cooling. The synthetic RNA was also equipped with the Broccoli aptamer so that it can bind its ligand and become fluorescent only in the thermodynamically stable structure. We further demonstrated that the relaxation to the thermodynamically stable and fluorescent structure can be catalyzed by a short trigger RNA in a sequence-specific manner. Finally, the RNA architecture was redesigned to sense and respond to microRNA sequences. In summary, we designed RNA nanomachines that can detect an RNA sequence, amplify signal and produce an optical output, all encoded in a single RNA transcript, self-powered by a metastable structure.
© The Author(s) 2019. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Nucleic Acids Research.