The catalytic trigger loop (TL) in RNA polymerase (RNAP) alternates between unstructured and helical hairpin conformations to admit and then contact the NTP substrate during transcription. In many bacterial lineages, the TL is interrupted by insertions of two to five surface-exposed, sandwich-barrel hybrid motifs (SBHMs) of poorly understood function. The 188-amino acid, two-SBHM insertion in Escherichia coli RNAP, called SI3, occupies different locations in elongating, NTP-bound, and paused transcription complexes, but its dynamics during active transcription and pausing are undefined. Here, we report the design, optimization, and use of a Cys-triplet reporter to measure the positional bias of SI3 in different transcription complexes and to determine the effect of restricting SI3 movement on nucleotide addition and pausing. We describe the use of H2O2 as a superior oxidant for RNAP disulfide reporters. NTP binding biases SI3 toward the closed conformation, whereas transcriptional pausing biases SI3 toward a swiveled position that inhibits TL folding. We find that SI3 must change location in every round of nucleotide addition and that restricting its movements inhibits both transcript elongation and pausing. These dynamics are modulated by a crucial Phe pocket formed by the junction of the two SBHM domains. This SI3 Phe pocket captures a Phe residue in the RNAP jaw when the TL unfolds, explaining the similar phenotypes of alterations in the jaw and SI3. Our findings establish that SI3 functions by modulating TL folding to aid transcriptional regulation and to reset secondary channel trafficking in every round of nucleotide addition.
Keywords: RNA polymerase; catalysis; pausing; regulation; transcription.