A ribosome profiling study of mRNA cleavage by the endonuclease RelE
Nucleic Acids Research
A ribosome profiling study of mRNA cleavage by the endonuclease RelE
Jae-Yeon Hwang 0
Allen R. Buskirk 0
0 Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine , Baltimore, MD 21205 , USA
Implicated in persistence and stress response pathways in bacteria, RelE shuts down protein synthesis by cleaving mRNA within the ribosomal A site. Structural and biochemical studies have shown that RelE cuts with some sequence specificity, which we further characterize here, and that it shows no activity outside the context of the ribosome. We obtained a global view of the effect of RelE on translation by ribosome profiling, observing that ribosomes accumulate on the 5 -end of genes through dynamic cycles of mRNA cleavage, ribosome rescue and initiation. Moreover, the addition of purified RelE to cell lysates shows promise as a method for generating ribosome footprints. In bacteria, profiling studies have suffered from relatively low resolution and have yielded no information on reading frame due to problems inherent to MNase digestion, the method used to degrade unprotected regions of mRNA. In contrast, we find that RelE yields precise 3 -ends that for the first time reveal reading frame in bacteria. Given that RelE has been shown to function in all three domains of life, RelE has potential to improve reading frame and shed light on A-site occupancy in ribosome profiling experiments more broadly.
Bacteria face enormous selective pressure from their
physical and chemical environment and from competing
microorganisms. In response to this pressure, bacteria have
evolved mechanisms to rapidly regulate gene expression,
responding, for example, to a reduction in the levels of
available nutrients by shutting down synthesis of ribosomes (the
stringent response) (1,2). Another strategy bacteria use to
deal with stress is to maintain a small fraction of the
population in a dormant state that survives environmental insults
and resumes growth when conditions improve (3). This
latter strategy plays an important role in antibiotic resistance
because dormant cells (known as persisters) are not killed,
even at high antibiotic concentrations. Shutting down
cellular protein synthesis is an essential step for both of these
RelE plays a direct and critical role in stress-response
pathways and persistence by blocking translation. RelE is
a member of the type II toxin-antitoxin family implicated
in persister-cell formation (4). Overexpression of the RelE
toxin causes a reversible inhibition of cell growth
resembling the dormant state characteristic of persister cells (5).
Growth resumes when RelE is neutralized by
overexpression of its binding partner, the RelB anti-toxin. Under rich
conditions, RelB is expressed at a slightly higher level,
masking RelE activity, but under stress conditions, Lon protease
degrades the more labile RelB anti-toxin, inducing RelE
activity (6). Indeed, RelB was originally discovered in genetic
screens involving nutrient starvation and named for its
effects during the stringent response in which transcription
of ribosomal RNA is inhibited through the accumulation
of the alarmone ppGpp (7,8). Even under rich conditions,
stochastic activation of RelE and related toxins is thought
to be responsible for inducing a persister-like state in a small
fraction of cells in culture (9).
Like at least 10 members of the type II toxin-antitoxin
family in E. coli, RelE exerts its effects by cleaving mRNA
and inducing translational arrest. RelE binds in the
ribosomal A site and cleaves the RNA after the second nucleotide
in the A-site codon (10). It is an unusual endonuclease in
the sense that it does not cleave RNA outside of this
context; the ribosome provides an environment essential to its
catalytic activity. A catalytic mechanism has been proposed
based on the x-ray crystal structure of RelE in a 70S
ribosome complex and refined by follow-up kinetic studies
(11–13). Initially, RelE was reported to be highly specific
for select codons (CAG, UCG and the stop codon UAG)
based on limited in vitro kinetic experiments (10). More
recent studies by Woychik et al. suggest that the endonuclease
has quite broad specificity in vivo with only a modest
sequence preference, if any (14). Analyses of cleavage sites on
a handful of highly-expressed genes identified many
cleavage sites with only a modest preference for cleavage before
G residues. These authors further made the puzzling
observation that RelE cleaves primarily at the 5 -end of mRNAs,
within about the first 100 codons; the mechanism
underlying this polarity was not understood (14).
Here, we report a genome-wide characterization of
protein synthesis in E. coli upon RelE overexpression. Distinct
from the method of Woychik et al. who adapted RNA-seq
to detect sites cleaved by another mRNA interferase, the
MazF toxin (15), the ribosome profiling method that we
employ directly reports on the position of ribosomes on
mRNAs. This approach thus allows us to observe the effects
of RelE on translation. We find that ribosome density is
strongly enriched at the 5 -end of genes and we propose a
model involving cycles of mRNA cleavage, rescue of stalled
ribosomes and initiation that rationalizes the earlier
observation of preferential RelE cleavage in the first 100 codons.
Further, we find that RelE can be used to improve the
resolution and power of ribosome profiling in bacteria. As
originally developed in yeast, ribosome profiling calls for
digestion of naked mRNA with RNase I to generate ribosome
footprints (16). As RNase I activity is inhibited by E. coli
ribosomes (17), bacterial ribosome profiling studies have
used MNase instead (18). Unfortunately, MNase is quite
sequence specific (19), creating strong sequence bias at both
the 5 - and 3 -ends of the ribosome footprint mRNA
fragments, thus greatly biasing the pool of RNA fragments
depending on their nucleotide sequence. Additionally, MNase
generates a broad distribution of lengths of ribosome
footprints (20), unlike the relatively homogeneous 28 nt
footprint observed in ribosome profiling studies in yeast (16).
This means that the position of the ribosome on the mRNA
cannot be determined with sufficient precision to observe
reading frame in ribosome profiling experiments in
bacteria. Here, we show that the addition of purified RelE to E.
coli cell lysates generates ribosome footprints that, for the
first time, provide excellent information on the position and
reading frame of the ribosome.
MATERIALS AND METHODS
Preparation of ribosome profiling and RNA-seq libraries
Libraries were prepared following our previously published
protocol (21) with a few modifications. For the in vivo RelE
expression experiments (the WT1 and RelE1 libraries), cells
carrying pJC203 were grown with 12 g/ml tetracycline.
The pJC203 plasmid contains a pCDF origin, tetR marker,
araC and the relE gene driven from the pBAD promoter;
details are available upon request. Saturated cultures of E.
coli MG1655 were diluted 1:100 into 400 ml of fresh LB
media and grown at 37◦C to an OD600 of 0.20. Arabinose
was added to a final concentration of 0.2% to induce RelE
expression and the cultures were grown for an additional
60 min. The cultures were then harvested by filtration and
flash freezing; the wild-type culture had reached an OD600
of 0.83; the RelE-expressing cells only 0.41. mRNA
fragments 20–40 nt in length were cloned for Ribo-seq and 40–
60 nt fragments from total RNA cleaved by alkaline
hydrolysis were cloned for RNA-seq.
For the in vitro RelE digestion experiments, wild-type
cells were grown in MOPS media supplemented with 0.2%
glucose, all 20 amino acids and other nutrients (Teknova).
As above, an overnight culture was diluted and arabinose
was added to a final concentration of 0.2% when the
culture had reached an OD600 of 0.27. The cultures were grown
for an additional 60 min and cells were harvested at a final
OD600 of 1.4. (Strong Ser pauses were evident in these
libraries, perhaps due to this late stage of growth). mRNA
fragments 10–40 nt in length were cloned for Ribo-seq and
RNA-seq (the WT2 and WT3 libraries). The RelE2 library
was made from the same biological sample as the WT2
library; the only difference was the addition of 1 nmol of
purified RelE to the MNase digest. RelE was purified following
the procedure of Strobel et al. (12,13).
Analyses of Ribo-seq and RNA-seq data
Following trimming of the linker sequence, reads that failed
to align to rRNA and tRNA were aligned to the E. coli
MG1655 genome NC 000913.3 using Bowtie 0.12.7 (22).
Reads were required to map uniquely to the genome but
were allowed two mismatches. Ribosome density maps were
generated by assigning ribosome occupancy to the 3 -end
of reads (21). Except where explicitly stated, genes with less
than 0.1 reads per codon were excluded. Plots of average
ribosome occupancy were computed by aligning genes at
their start or stop codons and taking equally weighted
averages of the ribosome density.
To compare ribosome density on different genes within a
polycistronic message, we first needed to create a list of
operons that are expressed from a single, non-overlapping
message. The transcriptome of E. coli is remarkably complex
(23): many operons overlap and multiple promoters often
regulate subsets of genes within an operon. To define single
transcription units, we started with roughly 4000 annotated
operons in the RegulonDB database (24). We excluded all
monocistronic genes as well as genes in polycistronic
mRNAs in which the RNA-seq density varied by more than
5-fold (using RNA-seq data from the WT1 sample), since
these genes probably contain multiple transcription units.
We compared the ribosome density on the resulting 1131
genes in polycistronic mRNAs with more than 1 rpkm in
the Ribo-seq and RNA-seq data.
Information on ribosomal reading frame was ascertained
by mapping the 3 -end of ribosome footprints to the first,
second or third nt of codons. All coding sequences were
included (without any threshold for coverage), though reads
within the first 30 nt and final 30 nt of each ORF were
excluded. To compensate for RelE cleavage specificity, in the
analyses of prfB, reads with 3 -ends mapping to the third
sub-codon position on NNC codons were shifted to the
second sub-codon position.
RESULTS AND DISCUSSION
Ribosomes are enriched at the 5 -end of genes in cells
To study the effects of RelE on protein synthesis in vivo,
we overexpressed RelE in wild-type E. coli MG1655 cells
and analyzed ribosome occupancy genome-wide using
ribosome profiling. RelE expression from an araBAD
promoter was induced with arabinose for 1 h beginning in early
log phase. This protocol resulted in very high levels of RelE
expression (one-quarter of all ribosome footprints map to
the RelE mRNA) and, accordingly, we observed very
pronounced effects on protein synthesis. The state that we
describe represents an equilibrium state in which RelE activity
has exerted its strong effects and cell growth has slowed or
halted. Thus, by exaggerating the effects of RelE, relative to
a more physiological activation, we obtain a clear picture of
the scope and specificity of this endonuclease and its global
effects on gene expression.
The most striking effect of RelE overexpression is the
dramatic enrichment of ribosome occupancy at the 5 -end of
genes. In the model of the manX gene shown in Figure 1A,
for example, far more ribosome footprints map to the 5 -end
of the gene than the 3 -end (RelE1, red). In contrast, in the
wild-type control (WT1, black), ribosome occupancy is
distributed more or less equally across the manX gene. These
observations hold true genome wide. In a plot of average
ribosome occupancy of about 1000 genes, all over 1000 nt
long, aligned at the start codon, ribosome coverage remains
fairly constant in the wild-type control whereas in the RelE1
data ribosomes are highly enriched in the first 100 codons
and depleted after the first 150 codons (Figure 1B). In
addition, a very strong peak of ribosome density is observed
at the start codon in the RelE1 data. This striking 5 -biased
asymmetric distribution of ribosomes in the RelE
overexpression strain suggests that the number of ribosomes
completing synthesis of full-length proteins is strongly reduced.
These observations are consistent with RelE’s known ability
to inhibit protein synthesis and arrest cell growth.
Given that RelE is an endonuclease that cleaves mRNA
positioned inside the ribosomal A site, we also looked at
steady-state levels of mRNA in RNA-seq libraries prepared
from the WT and RelE overexpression samples. Here, again,
we see enriched RNA density at the 5 -end of the manX gene
(relative to the 3 -end) when RelE is overexpressed (Figure
1C, blue); in contrast, the coverage is relatively uniform in
the wild-type control (grey). When the RNA-seq data from
many genes is averaged together, a substantial increase in
density at the 5 -end is observed in the RelE1 data (Figure
1D). These findings are nicely consistent with the ribosome
To extend our analysis, we next evaluated gene
expression across polycistronic transcripts and found that
ribosome density decays not only across single genes but across
operons as well. The manXYZ operon, for example, is
expressed as a single transcription unit from a single promoter,
a fact supported by equal levels of RNA density for the
three genes in the WT1 RNA-seq data (Figure 1C, grey).
Translation of all three genes is also observed in the WT1
Ribo-seq data (Figure 1A, black). In contrast, lower
levels of RNA and far lower levels of ribosome footprints are
observed for the downstream manY and manZ genes
compared with manX upon RelE overexpression.
To quantify these effects, we looked at the ribosome
density for 1131 well-expressed genes found in 432 polycistronic
operons. For each gene, we computed the ratio of
ribosome density in the RelE1 sample over the density in the
WT1 sample. The distribution of ratios are shown in
Figure 2A, where genes are binned according to their position
within the operon. Most genes that are at the first position
in an operon have relatively more ribosome footprints in the
RelE1 sample; e.g. the manX gene has 3-fold more (Figure
1A). In contrast, genes that lie downstream in the operon
have relatively fewer ribosome footprints in the RelE1
sample: the manZ gene has 2-fold fewer. The difference
between the distribution for genes in the first position versus
genes in the fifth position (or further downstream) is
statistically significant (Mann–Whitney P-value of 1.5 × 10−20).
These broad differences are also observed at the RNA level
(Mann–Whitney P-value of 1.3 × 10−13), though to a
somewhat lesser extent. In summary, our data indicate that upon
RelE overexpression, ribosomes are enriched not only at
the 5 -end of the units of translation (open reading frames)
but also at the 5 -end of units of transcription (polycistronic
We propose the following model for enrichment of
ribosomes at the 5 -end of genes upon RelE expression
(Figure 2B). As RelE begins to accumulate in the cell, it enters
the A site of elongating ribosomes and cleaves the mRNA,
thus preventing further cycles of elongation downstream.
Stalled ribosomes are rescued by the tmRNA–SmpB
complex or potentially by the backup ribosome rescue system
comprised of ArfA and RF2, both of which lead to
recycling of the ribosome subunits (25). Biochemical studies
have shown that tmRNA reacts particularly well with
ribosomes lacking mRNA downstream of the A site (26). In
principle, the recycled subunits are then free to assemble on
another transcript at the start codon to begin elongation
again. If RelE cleaves the initiation complex with any
efficiency, an enhanced start codon peak should be observed. If
a few cycles of elongation take place before cleavage of the
mRNA, ribosomes would be found enriched in the 5 region
of the coding sequence, decreasing in the 3 direction. In this
manner, cycles of mRNA cleavage, ribosome rescue and
initiation could easily lead to an enrichment of ribosomes at
the 5 -end of genes.
RNA decay mechanisms may also contribute to these
observed polar effects. Following cleavage by RelE, the
upstream RNA fragment will be protected from exonucleolytic
degradation by the stalled ribosome at its 3 -end (27). In
addition, the upstream fragment carries a 5 -triphosphate
which is overall stabilizing (28). In contrast, the
downstream fragment may be less occupied by ribosomes (as
they will have run off) and may lack a start codon for
another round of initiation. The 5 -hydroxyl group generated
by RelE cleavage promotes recruitment of RNase E,
facilitating further endonucleolytic cleavage and RNA decay.
Highlighting the importance of rescuing stalled
ribosomes, we note that some of the rescue machinery is strongly
upregulated in the RelE1 sample. We see less than 2-fold
differences in tmRNA and SmpB levels between the RelE1 and
WT1 libraries, consistent with the fact that these molecules
are constitutively expressed in Escherichia coli. In contrast,
steady-state levels for mRNA of the backup rescue factor
ArfA are 15-fold higher in the RelE1 sample. The levels of
synthesis of the ArfA protein (assessed by ribosome
occupancy) are more than 80-fold increased. Interestingly, ArfA
expression is regulated by tmRNA in an elegant feedback
mechanism such that when the capacity of tmRNA is
exceeded, ArfA accumulates (29,30). The fact that ArfA is
strongly upregulated in cells treated with RelE suggests that
the tmRNA system is overwhelmed and that cells are
responding to the need for more ribosome rescue activity by
upregulating ArfA expression.
As further support of our model, we note that in a
previous study of RelE cleavage in vivo, cleavage sites were
overrepresented at the 5 -end of genes, although no explanation
for this observation was provided (14). We argue that this
observation is directly related to our observation of
enrichment of ribosomes at the 5 -end of genes. The reloading of
ribosomes at start codons, followed by a few rounds of
elongation prior to additional cleavage events, ties these
observations together: RelE is targeted to the 5 -end of genes
because that is where ribosomes accumulate over time. Taken
together, our findings support a model in which mRNA
cleavage by RelE, ribosome recycling and initiation enrich
ribosome occupancy at the 5 -end of genes.
RelE predominantly cleaves mRNA after the second
nucleotide in empty A sites
The ribosome profiling data obtained from cells
overexpressing the RelE endonuclease provide information about
cleavage sites genome-wide. In a sense, this information is
indirect; we measure ribosome footprints and not the
products of RelE cleavage themselves. In preparing the
footprints, another nuclease (MNase) is used to digest upstream
mRNA that is unprotected by ribosomes. The MNase
treatment could interfere with our ability to detect RelE cleavage
events if a significant fraction of mRNA fragments are
generated by MNase alone.
We find that for the vast majority of the footprints, the
3 -end is generated by RelE cleavage and not MNase. This
is likely due to the high concentration of RelE produced in
the cell over the hour-long induction period. Support for the
idea that most ribosome footprints are generated by RelE is
seen from comparisons of the position of the start codon
peak in plots of average ribosome occupancy (Figure 3A).
In the WT1 control sample, MNase digests mRNA back
to the 3 -boundary of the ribosome, 15 nt downstream of
the first nucleotide in the start codon (black),
corresponding to what we have observed in many bacterial profiling
libraries generated with MNase (21). In contrast, the start
codon peak in the RelE1 data is 4 nt downstream of the first
nucleotide in the start codon (red).
The same phenomenon is observed at stop codon peaks
in plots of average ribosome occupancy (Figure 3B).
During termination, the stop codons UAG, UGA or UAA are
positioned in the ribosomal A site. In the WT1 sample,
MNase digests back to the 3 -boundary of the ribosome,
12 nt downstream of the first nucleotide in the stop codon
(black). In contrast, RelE cleaves after the second nt in the
stop codon (red) in the A site. Together, the data at start
and stop peaks show that RelE cleaves predominantly after
the second nucleotide in the A-site codon and that most
ribosome footprints in these samples are generated by RelE
cleavage. This pattern of cleavage is broadly consistent with
previous enzymatic, structural and primer extension studies
of RelE activity (10,11,14).
In examining peaks at other well-characterized ribosome
pausing sites (specific sites rather than gene averages), we
observed an interesting exception to the A-site cleavage
patterns seen at start and stop codons. The SecM and TnaC
polypeptides interact with the ribosome to inhibit their own
synthesis in response to specific cellular signals (31). The
ribosome is known to stall at the RAGP sequence in SecM,
e.g. with the Gly codon in the P site and unreactive
ProtRNA bound in the A site (32,33). A strong (black) peak 15
nt downstream of the Gly codon in the WT1 sample
corresponds to this well-understood pausing event when the
samples are treated only with MNase (Figure 3C). In the
RelE1 data, the expected peak after the second nucleotide
in the Pro codon is not observed; instead, the strongest peak
overlaps with the one observed in the WT1 sample 15 nt
downstream of the Gly codon. This exception makes an
important point. These data suggest that RelE is unable to
cleave the Pro codon in the A site in stalled SecM
complexes, presumably because the Pro-tRNA is stably bound
there and blocks RelE entry. Similarly, ribosome stalling at
the C-terminus of the TnaC peptide (Figure 3D) is observed
in the WT1 data with a strong peak 15 nt downstream of
the final Pro codon. In the RelE1 data, a peak might be
expected within the stop codon positioned in the A site, but
none is observed. We argue that RelE is blocked by bound
release factor 2 that is recruited but cannot hydrolyze the
nascent peptide (34). These findings suggest that RelE is
capable of competing with aminoacyl–tRNA and release
factors for access to the A site during normal elongation and
termination, but that stably-bound factors block RelE
In vitro digestion with RelE reveals the reading frame
It has been impossible to detect reading frame in ribosome
profiling studies in bacteria. This limitation arises in large
part from the nuclease, MNase, used to prepare samples.
The principle problem is that the nuclease has substantial
sequence specificities that can result in one or more
nucleotides remaining undigested at the boundaries of the
ribosome. Given the precision with which RelE cleaves after
the second nucleotide in the A site when expressed in vivo,
we hypothesized that RelE might prove to be a useful tool
in ribosome profiling, generating more reliable 3 -ends and
improving the resolution at which the position of the
ribosome can be determined. With this goal in mind, we
purified RelE and added it to cell lysates under our regular
digestion conditions in vitro; MNase was also included at the
regular concentration to digest mRNA on the 5 -boundary
of the ribosome. Ribosome footprints 10–40 nt in length
were then cloned and sequenced following our usual
protocol. Because it cleaves in the A site, RelE produces mRNA
fragments shorter than those produced by MNase cleavage
alone (Supplementary Figure S1).
The outcome of RelE digestion in vitro can be seen in
plots of average ribosome occupancy across many genes
aligned at start codons (Figure 4A). A robust start codon
peak is found at +4 and not +15 in the in vitro-digested
RelE2 sample (inset), exactly as observed when RelE is
overexpressed in vivo (RelE1, Figure 3A). On the other hand,
the in vitro RelE-digested data (RelE2) lack the strong
enrichment of ribosome density at the 5 -end of genes that we
observed in the in vivo RelE-digested data (RelE1). This
observation is nicely consistent with our model for the 5
accumulation of reads in the RelE1 sample: on-going
translation is necessary for ribosomes to accumulate on the 5 -ends
of genes following RelE cleavage, and this phenomenon is
not seen in vitro because elongation is arrested by
chloramphenicol and initiation is inhibited by dilution of the
necessary factors. These observations provide further evidence
that the enrichment of ribosome occupancy at the 5 -end of
genes in vivo is due to the dynamics of cleavage, rescue and
initiation and not RelE activity per se.
A second striking observation in these data is the wide
vertical spread in the RelE2 signal relative to that observed
in the wild-type (WT2) library prepared from the same
biological sample using only MNase (Figure 4A). This
vertical spread is indicative of 3 nt periodicity, some portion of
which reflects reading frame.
To begin to consider this question, we first calculated the
average ribosome density at all three sub-codon positions
(1,2 and 3) in open reading frames throughout the genome.
The WT2 library shows slightly higher density at the first
nucleotide (40%) than the other two nucleotides (30% each,
Figure 4B, black). While it is tempting to attribute this 3
nt periodicity to reading frame, we have found that
RNAseq libraries prepared by digestion of total RNA with low
concentrations of MNase are similar –ribosome occupancy
is enriched at the first sub-codon position in ORFs (Figure
4B, blue). We argue that the sequence specificity of MNase
coupled with the nucleotide bias in ORFs explains this
observation. Indeed, it is known that MNase cleaves
preferentially before A and T residues (19), and analysis of
nucleotide bias in ORFs reveals that these two nucleotides are
enriched at position two in codons (Figure 4C). Cleavage
before position two makes the 3 -end of footprints align
with the first sub-codon position. Given that ribosome
occupancy is assigned using the 3 -end of footprints,
ribosome density appears higher at the first position (40%) than
the other two (30% each). This effect is lacking in
footprints mapping to 3 -untranslated regions (where the
reading frame of reference is defined by the preceding ORF),
because there is no nucleotide bias in the 3 -UTR
(Supplementary Figure S2). These data show that the small degree
of 3 nt periodicity in profiling data produced with the
regular protocol arises from MNase specificity and not the
reading frame of the ribosome.
In contrast, libraries treated with RelE either in vivo or in
vitro clearly show the strongest density at sub-codon
position two (Figure 4B), corresponding to cleavage before the
third nucleotide in the A-site codon. This specificity is
similar to what we observed at both start and stop codons in
average ribosome density plots (Figure 3). In the in
vitrodigested sample (RelE2), roughly 60% of footprints map to
the second sub-codon position; 30% map to the third while
only about 10% map to the first position. As expected,
reading frame is lacking in non-translated regions
(Supplementary Figure S2). The large difference between the density
at the first two positions explains the large vertical spread
observed in Figure 4A. In the RelE overexpression library
(RelE1), the difference is even more exaggerated: 70% of
footprints map to the second position, while only 20% map
to position three and 10% to position one. These libraries
provide the first reliable information about ribosome
reading frame in bacterial ribosome profiling data.
RelE prefers to cleave after C and before G
By analyzing the nucleotide bias at the 3 -ends of ribosome
footprints in the different experiments, we are able to obtain
some insight into the specificities of the MNase and RelE
enzymes. Nuclease specificity is not the only contributor to
this bias; sequence bias in open reading frames, enrichment
of ribosomes at specific sites on transcripts and cloning or
sequencing artifacts may also play a role. But by
comparing RelE-derived footprints with MNase-derived footprints
and keeping the other factors constant, we were able to
observe some interesting trends that can be attributed to
nuclease specificity. As others have shown, MNase
preferentially cleaves before the nucleotides A and T; in our data we
observe that A and T are strongly enriched downstream of
the cleavage site, both at +1 nt and to a lesser extent +2 nt
(Figure 5, left). In contrast, A and T are underrepresented
upstream of the cleavage site, both at −1 nt and to a lesser
extent −2 nt. The sequence preferences of RelE are very
different from those of MNase: C is preferred at the −1
position while G is selected against (Figure 5, right). Following
the cleavage site, G is strongly preferred and C is selected
against. These tendencies hold true whether RelE digestion
occurs in vivo (RelE1) or in vitro (RelE2).
Although initial reports of RelE activity described the
endonuclease as highly specific for a few codons, additional
studies revealed a more relaxed specificity. The preference
for G after the cleavage site was anticipated by the kinetic
studies of Ehrenberg et al., who found that kcat/KM values
for RelE cleavage were markedly higher for codons ending
in G (10). Woychik et al. also reported a strong preference
for cleavage before G in five highly expressed genes in E.
coli (14). The x-ray crystal structure of RelE bound in the A
site of 70S ribosomes offers a possible clue explaining this
preference (11). The G in the third position of the A-site
codon stacks on the base of C1054, a conserved 16S rRNA
nucleotide in the decoding center. Direct contact of RelE
residues with this G nucleotide are also possible.
In contrast to the good agreement of our data with these
earlier studies regarding the specificity of the downstream
nucleotide at the cleavage site, our observations of a marked
preference upstream of the cleavage site are unexpected.
There is little evidence in the literature of a strong bias for
C (and against G) at the −1 position, raising the
possibility that this effect is an artifact of ribosome profiling. We
find, however, that RNA-seq libraries show no such bias
when fragments were prepared by alkaline hydrolysis and
then cloned and sequenced exactly as the profiling libraries
(Supplementary Figure S3). This result suggests that the
preference for C may be due to RelE cleavage itself rather
than cloning and sequencing bias. The specificity of RelE
cleavage has implications for its use in ribosome profiling:
because it cleaves with some sequence specificity, some
undesirable noise is introduced during the library preparation
that may interfere with quantitative observation of
ribosome pauses at the A site (Supplementary Figure S4). We
argue, however, that this limitation does not affect the
number of ribosomes observed per gene (Supplementary
Figure S5), a common metric in profiling studies, and is
offset by the advantages that RelE offers in terms of
providing more precise information about the ribosome’s position
and reading frame. It is possible that related RelE enzymes
from other organisms will either exhibit complementary or
reduced specificities, thus increasing the generality of this
Refined RelE-derived ribosome density better reflects reading
Because the sequence specificity of RelE alters the pattern
of cleavage in predictable ways, we can refine the data
computationally and obtain even better information regarding
reading frame. Looking at average ribosome occupancy at
sense codons positioned in the A site, we find that most
codons are cleaved after the second nucleotide, as expected
from the analyses of start and stop codons above. In the heat
map shown in Figure 6A, most codons have the strongest
signal at position two, corresponding to cleavage after the
second nucleotide. A subset of codons has elevated
density at position 3; all of the codons ending in C have more
cleavage after the third sub-codon position than after the
second position. Given the specificity depicted in Figure 5,
where cleavage after C is preferred and cleavage before C
is strongly avoided, it makes sense that NNC codons are
cleaved after the third position, between the A site codon
and the codon downstream. To compensate for this
cleavage bias, we shifted the ribosome density at all NNC codons
from the third nucleotide to the second. This improved the
signal at the second position from about 60% to about 80%,
with 10% remaining at position one and 10% at position
three (Figure 6B). The fact that the signal at position three
was reduced from 30% to 10% suggests that two-thirds of
reads at this position arise from NNC codons. Given what
we know about sequence specificity, a more sophisticated
algorithm could be employed in the future to realign
ribosome density to optimize information about reading frame.
This simple shifting of density on NNC codons from the
third to second position results in substantial improvements
in reading frame resolution. Indeed, this level of resolution
is now sufficient to allow the direct detection of
frameshifting events in bacterial ribosome profiling data. To see these
events, we looked at the best-known example in the
literature, the programmed frameshift on the prfB gene encoding
RF2. When RF2 levels are limiting, ribosomes pause at a
stop codon at the 28th codon in the gene and then shift into
the +1 frame. Following the frameshift, ribosomes complete
the synthesis of the RF2 protein that is encoded in the new
reading frame (35). When we split the ribosome occupancy
signal into three components, with reads that map to the
first, second or third sub-codon position, this
frameshifting behavior is evident in models of the prfB gene (Figure
6C). Upstream of the frameshift site, the majority of
ribosome footprints are cleaved after the second sub-codon
position, as expected. But downstream of the
frameshifting event, most footprints are cleaved after the third
position, consistent with a +1 frameshift. Very few reads map
to the first sub-codon position, either before or after the
frameshift site. Quantitation of the reading frame upstream
and downstream of the programmed frameshift site further
supports this conclusion (Figure 6D and E).
Our ribosome profiling analyses of RelE activity in vivo
reveal dynamic cycles of cleavage, ribosome rescue and
initiation that enrich ribosomes at the 5 -end of genes. This
model explains the prior observation that RelE cleavage
exhibits this unusual polarity. Although it has been known
that RelE-cleaved mRNAs are good targets for the tmRNA
rescue system (26,36), our data highlight the importance of
the tmRNA and ArfA systems in the cellular response to
and recovery from RelE activity. How cells exit the dormant
state following RNA cleavage by type II toxins is not yet
clear, but it seems likely that ribosome rescue is essential
for this to occur. Antibiotics are beginning to be developed
to target the tmRNA rescue pathway (37), raising the
possibility of targeting persister cells and, in particular, their
reliance on toxins and ribosome rescue systems.
The precision with which RelE cleaves in the A site makes
it a valuable addition to the ribosome profiling method,
where it can generate ribosome footprints that reveal
reading frame for the first time in bacteria. Going forward, our
ability to visualize reading frame with the high degree of 3 nt
periodicity in these data can be used to search for novel
programmed frameshifting sites in bacteria, as has been done
with human ribosome profiling (38). RelE may have
application outside bacteria as well: it has also been shown to
cleave mRNA in ribosomal A sites in eukaryotes and
archaea (39). There it should also prove useful in analyses of
reading frame and A-site occupancy. Finally, digestion with
RelE alone generates mRNA fragments of various length
with ends corresponding to ribosomal A sites. If the
protocol for cloning mRNA fragments could be adapted to
faithfully capture these fragments irrespective of their size
differences, it would yield information about position of two
ribosomes and the distance between them, not just the
position of single ribosomes that comes from the current
protocol. Knowing the distance between the A site of two
ribosomes may shed light on translational efficiency, rates of
initiation, local rates of elongation and ribosome stacking
at pause sites.
The accession number for the sequencing data reported in
this paper is GSE85540.
Supplementary Data are available at NAR Online.
The authors thank Rachel Green, Boris Zinshteyn and
Scott Strobel for comments on the manuscript.
National Institute of Health (NIH) [GM110113 to A.B.
and GM054839 to Scott Strobel]. Funding for open access
charge: NIGMS [GM110113].
Conflict of interest statement. None declared.
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