Background: RNAs perform many functions in addition to supplying coding templates, such as binding proteins. RNA-protein interactions are important in multiple processes in all domains of life, and the discovery of additional protein-binding RNAs expands the scope for studying such interactions. To find such RNAs, we exploited a form of ribosomal regulation. Ribosome biosynthesis must be tightly regulated to ensure that concentrations of rRNAs and ribosomal proteins (r-proteins) match. One regulatory mechanism is a ribosomal leader (r-leader), which is a domain in the 5' UTR of an mRNA whose genes encode r-proteins. When the concentration of one of these r-proteins is high, the protein binds the r-leader in its own mRNA, reducing gene expression and thus protein concentrations. To date, 35 types of r-leaders have been validated or predicted.
Results: By analyzing additional conserved RNA structures on a multi-genome scale, we identified 20 novel r-leader structures. Surprisingly, these included new r-leaders in the highly studied organisms Escherichia coli and Bacillus subtilis. Our results reveal several cases where multiple unrelated RNA structures likely bind the same r-protein ligand, and uncover previously unknown r-protein ligands. Each r-leader consistently occurs upstream of r-protein genes, suggesting a regulatory function. That the predicted r-leaders function as RNAs is supported by evolutionary correlations in the nucleotide sequences that are characteristic of a conserved RNA secondary structure. The r-leader predictions are also consistent with the locations of experimentally determined transcription start sites.
Conclusions: This work increases the number of known or predicted r-leader structures by more than 50%, providing additional opportunities to study structural and evolutionary aspects of RNA-protein interactions. These results provide a starting point for detailed experimental studies.
Keywords: Bioinformatics; Comparative genomics; RNA-protein interaction; Ribosomal leader; cis-regulatory RNA.