The ribosomal RNAs, along with their substrates the transfer RNAs, contain the most highly conserved nucleotides in all of biology. We have assembled a database containing structure-based alignments of sequences of the small-subunit rRNAs from organisms that span the entire phylogenetic spectrum, to identify the nucleotides that are universally conserved. In its simplest (bacterial and archaeal) forms, the small-subunit rRNA has ∼1500 nt, of which we identify 140 that are absolutely invariant among the 1961 species in our alignment. We examine the positions and detailed structural and functional interactions of these universal nucleotides in the context of a half century of biochemical and genetic studies and high-resolution structures of ribosome functional complexes. The vast majority of these nucleotides are exposed on the subunit interface surface of the small subunit, where the functional processes of the ribosome take place. However, only 40 of them have been directly implicated in specific ribosomal functions, such as contacting the tRNAs, mRNA, or translation factors. The roles of many other invariant nucleotides may serve to constrain the positions and orientations of those nucleotides that are directly involved in function. Yet others can be rationalized by participation in unusual noncanonical tertiary structures that may uniquely allow correct folding of the rRNA to form a functional ribosome. However, there remain at least 50 nt whose universal conservation is not obvious, serving as a metric for the incompleteness of our understanding of ribosome structure and function.
Keywords: 16S rRNA; RNA conservation; protein synthesis; ribosomal RNA; ribosome.
© 2022 Noller et al.; Published by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press for the RNA Society.