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Biosynthesis of Ribonucleic Acids.

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Volume 14
Number 7
July 1975
Pages 445 - 506
International tditron in English
Biosynthesis of Ribonucleic Acids
By John P. Richardson[*]
Biosynthesis of ribonucleic acids involves the polymerization of ribonucleotides on deoxyribonucleic acid templates and the conversion of these primary gene transcripts to mature
RNA molecules. The present report reviews briefly our current understanding of these processes.
1. Introduction
RNA is a significant and essential cellular component that
can comprise as much as a quarter of the dry weight of
a cell[’*21. Most RNA is involved in protein synthesis, but
a small amount is needed in the replication of DUA and
some RNA may also have a regulatory function. About half
the RNA that is synthesized at any given moment goes into
molecules that are stable. These are the ribosomal RNAs
(rRNAs), which are structural components of ribosomes, and
the transfer RNAs (tRNAs), which serve to adapt the amino
acids to the genetic code during protein synthesis. The other
halfgoes into RNA molecules with very low metabolic stability.
These are the messenger RNAs (mRNAs), which are the templates for protein synthesis; many of the nuclear RNA molecules, which are precursors to the stable RNAs and mRNA;
and the RNA intermediates involved in DNA replication.
The lifetime of these RNAs is often less than one-tenth the
cell generation time. Because such a large fraction of the
RNA is unstable, the cell composition under-represents the
fraction of the synthetic capacity devoted to RNA; hence,
on a weight basis, RNA synthesis accounts for of all macromolecular synthesis.
Chemically, RNA is a linear polymer of ribonucleotides
linked together by phosphodiester bonds between the 5’ carbon
of one ribonucleotide and the 3’ carbon of an adjacent ribonucleotide. The four common ribonucleotides in RNA have the
bases adenine, guanine, cytosine, and uracil; but the stable
[*] Prof. Dr. J. P. Richardson
Department of Chcmistry
Indiana University
Bloomington. Indiana 47401 (USA)
RNAs, especially the tRNAs, also have small but significant
fractions of other ribonucleotides that are formed by modification of the four common ones.
In many of its chemical properties, RNA is similar to DNA.
The major chemical differences are in the sugar moieties,
where RNA has ribose instead of 2’-deoxyribose found in
DNA, and in the presence of uracil as a common base instead
of the thymine (5-methyluracil). Also, RNA molecules are
usually smaller than DNA molecules, and they are generally
single-stranded while DNA is usually double-stranded.
Nonetheless, there are enough similarities for RNA to form
stable complexes with DNA‘”. The structure of these complexes is a hybrid regular double-helix with the RNA strand
antiparallel to a complementary DNA strandf4].The ability
Fig. I . Scheme for RNA biosynthesis. When RNA polymerase (2x,B,B’,u)
is incubated with DNA in the presence of subslrales (NTPs) (step 1 ) RNA
molecules are synthesized from complexes of RNA polymerase and DNA.
The D factor dissociales from the enzyme shoriiy after initiation of the
RNA chain. When the enzyme reaches a transcription termination signal.
it dissociates from the template and liberates the free RNA molecule (step
71. The synthesis of the RNA is completed in many cases by the action
of nucleases that cleave segments of the initial transcript and of modification
enzymes that alter specific nucleotides (step 3).
to form these structures is significant because i t is a clue to a
possible mechanism for directing the polymerization of RNA.
The biosynthesis of RNA molecules involves two major processes: polymerization of ribonucleotides and post-transcriptional maturation. These are shown schematically in Figure I.
2. Polymerization of Ribonucleotides
2.1. RNA Polymerase
Nearly all RNA is polymerized directly from DNA templates
by a process called transcription. This is inferred from the
facts that nearly all RNA is homologous to sequences of
DNA from the same organisms'']; that most RNA synthesis
activity is found in DNA-dependent
and that
all RNA synthesis can be blocked by certain drugs, such
as actinomycin D, known to bind very tightly to DNA"].
An obvious exception to this rule is that some viral RNAs
are replicated directly from RNA templates. In addition,
ribonucleotides can be added to the 3' ends of some RNAs
without a template in reactions catalyzed by nucleotidyl transferases. Although it had long been considered possible that
cellular RNAs might be duplicated on RNA templates there
was no evidence to support this hypothesis until it was recently
found that rabbit reticulocytes contain an RNA-dependent
RNA polymerase[']. Since these cells no longer have DNA,
their remaining mRNA, principally globin mRNA, might be
replicated by such an enzyme. However, this has yet to be
The enzyme responsible for RNA synthesis from DNA templates is called a DNA-dependent RNA polymerase. In bacteria one basic form, or core structure, of this enzyme has
been identified'"]. It is sensitive to inhibition by rifampicin,
and can be modified either by the binding of other protein
factors or by chemical alterations. Another form has been
postulated to be responsible for the RNA synthesis involved
in chromosomal replication"01 since this synthesis is apparently not inhibited by rifampicin" ' I . However, the KNA
polymerase responsible for this activity has not been isolated.
In eukaryotic cells, four separate forms of RNA polymerases
have been clearly distinguished'' 'I. One is from the mitochondria, and the other three are nuclear enzymes of which one
comes from the nucleolus, the site of synthesis of ribosomal
RNA precursors. The more abundant of the other two nuclear
enzymes is inhibited by low levels of the mushroom toxin
r-amanitin. This enzyme is thought to be responsible for
the synthesis of precursors to mRNA. The other nuclear
enzyme appears to be responsible for the synthesis of 5s
rRNA and tRNA[''l.
Most RNA polymerases are complicated, apparently asymmetric proteins, containing several subunits. With E. c d i RNA
polymerase the smallest unit that has any RNA polymerase
activity, known as the core, has a molecular weight of
390000["."1. I t consists offour subunits and contains a tightly
bound zinc
One polypeptide, the r subunit, is present
in two copies. The other two, called p and p', are very large
polypeptides with molecular weights > 150000 and although
they are similar in size, they are distinctly different1"'. Highly
purified enzyme also usually contains two other polypeptides.
One of these, called o, is a factor required for initiation
of transcription from certain DNA templates and although
it binds tightly enough to the free enzyme to be considered
a subunit, it is released when the enzyme starts polymerization
of an RNA chain. RNA polymerase with c is called the
holoenzyme. The other polypeptide, called a), has a molecular
weight of about loo00 and may actually be a contaminant
even though enzyme preparations with a) generally have
slightly higher specific activity than preparations without it.
There is no evidence that nucleic acids are an important
permanent component of RNA polymerase. However, covalently bound nucleotides and phosphate are known to be
present under certain conditions and these substituents could
play an important role in modulating enzyme activity"'!
Core RNA polymerase isolated from exponentially growing
E. coli appears to have less than 0.2 mole of phosphorous
per mole of enzyme, so these substituents do not seem to
be required for activity during normal cell growth. On the
other hand, it has been reported that phosphorylation of
(J factor by a protein kinase from rabbit muscle can activate
RNA polymerase extensively[' 'I. The significance of this is
not clear but it could be related to the presence of inactive
polypeptides the same size as D factor in some enzyme preparations['"!
The nucleolar and major nucleoplasmic RNA polymerase
isolated from both calf thymus and rat liver nuclei are even
larger proteins than the E. c d i enzyme'"'. They are also
made up of several subunits including some peptides that
are even larger than E. c d i p$' subunits. I t is not known
yet whether any of these subunits are initiation factors analogous to 0.
In contrast, RNA polymerase isolated from the mitochondria of Neurospora crassa consists of an aggregate of a single
polypeptide with molecular weight of 64000[2"1, and the
enzymes coded by bacteriophages T 3 and T7 have single
polypeptides with molecular weight of about I07000[''~2 2 1 .
Thus a complex protein structure is not a prerequisite for
an RNA polymerase. However, these enzymes act on simpler
genomes and the bacteriophage enzymes have rigid specificities. The more complicated structures of the bacterial and
nuclear enzymes, therefore, may be characteristic of enzymes
that recognize several kinds of genetic regions under strict
2.2. The Biosynthetic Reaction
All RNA is synthesized by the polymerization of ribonucleoside triphosphates (ATP, GTP, CTP, and UTP) in a reaction
that requires a divalent cation, usually Mg" ions. For each
nucleotide added to the growing chain, a molecule of pyrophosphate is liberated. The postdated mechanism for the polymerization reaction is shown in Figure 2. The 3' hydroxyl group
of the 3' terminal ribonucleotide of the nascent RNA chain
is activated to perform a nucleophilic attack on the cx ( i . 6 ' .
the first) phosphorus of a correctly aligned nucleoside triphosphate. The resulting phosphodiester bond is formed at the
expense of the anhydride link between the cx and p phosphorus
atoms, producing pyrophosphate as the leaving group. The
correct alignment of the incoming nucleotide presumably
dependson its binding to theenzymeand to the DNA template.
Although the net change in free energy for the addition
of monomer is not large (AGO'- -0.5 kcal/m01)[~~],
the reac-
ternplate I DNA i
Fig. 2. Scheme for addition of a nucleotide to the 3' end of a nascent
RNA chain.
tion proceeds well as long as the concentration of pyrophosphate is low. Physiologically, this is achieved by hydrolysis
of the pyrophosphate to orthophosphate, which is a highly
favorable reaction (A Go'= - 7.0 kcal/mol)catalyzed by ubiquitous pyrophosphatases. There is no indication that any further
breakdown of nucleoside triphosphates is needed to drive
the polymerization. The pure enzyme does not appear to
catalyze any nucleotide hydrolysis reaction and the rate of
RNA chain polymerization in citro is essentially identical
to that in uiuo when physiological levels of substrates are
used[24.''I. In E. coli growing at 3 7 T , this rate is 50 nucleotides per second for all RNAs of different types and size[". "I.
It thus takes about one minute to synthesize an RNA molecule
the size of the larger ribosomal RNA, which has a molecular
weight of 1.1 x loh. This compares with an overall rate of
nearly 900 nucleotides per second per nascent chain needed
to replicate the DNA in that cell.
The direction of RNA chain growth for the reaction catalyzed by E. coli RNA polymerase is as shown in Figure 2;
each incoming nucleotide is added to the end with the free
3' hydroxyl
Chain synthesis can be initiated by
the same reaction used for elongation, except that the acceptor
"RNA" is just another nucleoside triphosphate instead of
the 3' end of a nascent RNA chain. This first nucleotide
is the only one incorporated into the chain as a triphosphate;
that is, without loss of its 0 and y phosphorus atoms.
In general, this initiating nucleotide IS always either ATP
or GTP[271.
Although it is certainly possible that this specificity
is a characteristic of all the different kinds of initiation sites
recognized, the interaction of the purine nucleotides with the
enzyme could also affect the positioning of the enzyme in
an initiation site. ATP and GTP both bind to two sites on
the free enzyme whereas UTP and CTP bind rather weakly
to only one of these[291.The extra binding site for the purine
nucleotides may be involved in the initiation reactions including the proper positioning of the enzyme with respect to
the DNA template.
enzymes are double-helical DNAs, but single-stranded DNAand even RNA under some conditions--can substitute for
double-helical DNA, but with much lower activity; with saturating amounts of DNA, E. co/i RNA polymerase is less than
one-tenth as active with a single-stranded DNA than with
a good double-helical DNAL6'.
Analysis of the regions transcribed from a denatured DNA
indicate that the enzyme is less discriminating when the template is in its single-stranded
evidently RNA polymerase can initiate synthesis from many more regions on singlestranded DNA than on double-helical DNA and these include
regions that are apparently not transcribed in the cell. The
lower rate of RNA synthesis is not because of a lack of
initiation sites but rather because RNA chain growth is slower,
termination is more frequent, and possibly initiation is
slower[28.3 1 1 .
The overall transcription reaction on a double-helical DNA
is fully conservative with respect to the structure of the
DNA[321;no permanent alteration of the DNA occurs during
the course of RNA synthesis. However, while it is used as
a template, the DNA is firmly complexed with the enzyme
and the nascent RNA
In some cases the enzyme
can be denatured and the RNA will remain attached to the
DNA[34],but usually removal of the enzyme will result in
a spontaneous dissociation of the RNA[331.Furthermore, most
of the nascent RNA is susceptible to ribonuclease digestion.
These facts suggest that the RNA is involved in a direct
interaction with the DNA but that the site of this interaction
is probably small and dependent on the enzyme for stability.
Two basic models have been proposed as mechanisms for
how a double-helical DNA can be used as a template for
the assembly of a free single-stranded RNA without permanently altering the DNA structure. In one[35.361. a short
single-stranded segment of the DNA, exposed by local unwinding, acts as a template by a mechanism similar to the process
proposed by Watson and Crick for the duplication of DNA;
a particular base in the DNA strand would only allow binding
in the enzyme of the nucleotide that forms the correct WatsonCrick base pair (Fig. 3a). Presumably in this case, the RNA
and the free template DNA strand would form a short hybrid
2.3. The Role of DNA
'162 3
With the DNA-dependent RNA polymerases, DNA acts
as the template for the assembly of RNA. Without the template
and without all the nucleoside triphosphates specified by the
template, no RNA is synthesized. The best templates for most
Fig. 3. Modelsof nascent RNA moleculeb forming interaction with nucleotides
on only one DNA template strand (a) or on both DNA template strands
(b). The DNA in ( a ) is in the "A" form and the DNA in (b) is i n the "B"
helix which, however, would be displaced by reformation of
the more stable DNA-DNA helix during polymerization.
In the alternative
the two DNA strands do not
separate completely and the RNA is assembled in the major
groove of DNA by binding of the monomer ribonucleotides
to both bases of each DNA pair. The specific interactions
required for this binding have been demonstrated by model
building[381(Fig. 3b).
The major distinction between the two models is that a
single DNA strand acts as the template in one whereas both
strands are required in the other. The strongest evidence in
favor of the former model is that single-stranded DNA can
be used as a template, which suggests that the enzyme can
use Watson-Crick base pairing for the interaction[351.However, the slower chain growth and frequent termination that
occurs on the single-stranded DNA suggests that the second
DNA strand must play some important role in stabilizing
the interaction. Since both models require a distortion and
partial unwinding of the helix, the fact that RNA polymerase
does cause DNA to unwind about 180" per enzyme[3y1is
not sufficient evidence to support either model. Instead, it
is necessary to demonstrate the involvement of either one
or both strands as template, and this has yet to be accomplished.
The model for recognition of the initiation site on DNA
by RNA polymerase favored currently''"' postulates that the
enzyme rapidly associates and dissociates from random sites
on DNA molecules until it recognizes a special site. where
it can form a tight binary complex (Fig. 4). This complex
in turn is in equilibrium with another one in which the DNA
strands unwind to expose the DNA bases. I t is enzyme in
this latter complex that is able to initiate an RNA cham.
Many elements of this model have been supported by studying
the binding of RNA polymerase to T 7 DNA in the absence
of nucleoside triphosphates and the conditions necessary for
rapid chain initiation from complexes between RNA polymerase and DNA. The schema does not take into account the
effect that the nucleoside triphosphates might have on the
binding and recognition steps, but it is believed that the RNA
polymerase can bind very close to the initiation site without
the involvement of nucleoside triphosphates.
closed complex
3. Selectivity of Transcription
3.1. Initiation
The synthesis of specific RNA molecules is a result of the
initiation and termination of transcription at specific points
on the DNA template[401.The E. coli DNA-dependent RNA
polymerase has the ability to select the site on the DNA
to be used for initiation; initiation does not occur at random,
and as long as o factor is present these initiation sites can
be regular double-helical sections of the DNA. The core
enzyme also has a limited capacity to initiate specific RNA
synthesis; it can use certain single-stranded segments and
may be able to initiate slowly from double-helical segments.
The main functions of the o factor are to stabilize the interaction between the enzyme and the initiation site, and to destabilize the nonspecific interaction that RNA polymerase can
make with almost any region of DNA. It was originally suggested that o factor might direct the recognition of a particular
DNA regionr411,but no new D factors that confer obviously
different specificities on the activity of E . coli core RNA polymerase have been purified. Thus, strong support of this model
has yet to be found.
A second sigma factor from E. roli has been Isolated as
a component of a minor RNA polymerase fraction. This new
protein called G' has a molecular weight of 56000 and binds
more tightly to the core enzyme than D [ ~ It~ ~apparently
performs the same functions, and D does not further activate
enzyme saturated with 0'. No differences have been distinguished yet in their specificity except that o' more readily
catalyzes the de novo synthesis of ribohomopolymers and
the DNA-dependent synthesis of poly
In its size, o'
from E. coli is similar to the o isolated with B. subtilis RNA
polymerase. Since E. coli o will substitute for the B. subtilis
o factor, it appears that a basic interaction between factor
and core has been conserved in different bacterial species[44!
,152 I
Fig. 4. Model for recognition and activation of the initiation site on D N A
by RNA polymerase (circle). N T P = a n y nucleoside triphosphate (adapted
from ref. [40]).
The genetic element that is thought to govern initiation
of RNA chain is called the promoter[45];mutants in promoter
regions affect the rate of transcription from the genetic unit
governed by that promoter. Two such promoter mutants that
govern the transcription of the N gene in h, have been mapped
at about 33 nucleotides from the DNA sequence that specifies
the 5' terminal end of the RNA transcript for the h N
481. Even though the promoter site is neither coincident with
nor immediately adjacent to the DNA sequences for the transcript it controls, it is within the 40 base pairs that presumably
can be spanned by a single RNA polymerase molecule. It
is thus close enough to influence directly the ability of the
enzyme to use the template sequences for the start of the
RNA molecule.
The segment of DNA between the start of the N gene
transcript and the site for its promoter mutations has been
and the sequence contains several two-fold rotational symmetries (see Fig. 5). Certain of these symmetries
are probably recognized by various L regulator proteins including the h repressor, and one of them may be important for
RNA polymerase recognition. If this is the case then there
is likely also to be a symmetry in the structure of RNA
polymerase. This would have to involve the 2 subunit because
it is the only one that is present in duplicate. A site in this
LDNA sequence recognized by the Hind R I1 restriction nuclease is also indicated. When RNA polymerase is bound to
hDNA the restriction nuclease no longer cleaves at that
ite el^'*^'! Other sites on hDNA and on several other DNA
molecules recognized by this restriction enzyme are also protected from its nuclease activity when RNA polymerase is
bound[491.However, most of the sites recognized by this nuclease on these DNA molecules are not protected by RNA
polymerase. Thus, the sequence recognized by the nuclease
is not sufficient to define the complete recognition site for
RNA polymerase binding, but it may be a necessary sequence
for at least one kind of polymerase binding site.
1162 5
Fig. 5. Nuclcotide sequence of a h operator-promotor region. Sequence taken
from ref. [48]. The overlined segment (GAT) indicates the start of the N
gene transcript. Several two-fold rotational symmetries occur in this sequsnce.
The axis of symmetry for the enclosed sequences is located by the vertical
arrow above the sequence. The axes for two other symmetries are located
by the two vertical arrow below the sequence. The site of cleavage by the
Hind restriction nuclease is also indicated. R = purine nucleotide; Y = pyrimidine nucleotide.
Although no o factors with proven differences in specificity
have been purified, there are many proteins that act in conjunction with the holoenzyme that affect the selectivity of transcription. The best characterized proteins of this sort are the repressors for the lactose[501and galactose[”] operons and for the
early transcription units on bacteriophage hDNAlsZ1.These
repressors specifically inhibit transcription of the genetic
regions they control. With a bacteriophage DNA carrying
sequences of the lactose operon, the lactose repressor only
inhibits transcription of those sequences and not the sequences
of the bacteriophage genes[”]. Similarly, h repressor specifically inhibits transcription from the early region of h DNA
but does not inhibit transcription of bacteriophage 434 DNA,
a closely related DNA that is immune to the action of the
h repressor‘”!
The repressor molecules are known to bind very tightly
and specifically to the operator region of the appropriate
DNAs. Since these operator regions are near or overlap with
the regions recognized by RNA polymerase for the initiation
of the synthesis of the genetic unit controlled by the repressor,
it is quite possible that the repressor binding physically prevents interaction with RNA polymerase. This has been demonstrated with the h repressor[54! Alternatively, the repressor
could just prevent the enzyme from moving through or away
from the DNA regions blocked by it; there is also some
evidence to support this mode of action as
The h
DNA sequences given in Figure 5 include a site recognized
by the h repressor. In this case transcription appears to start
just outside of the region recognized by the repressor. However,
the transcript of a lactose operator containing an especially
active promotor mutation includes the sequences for the lactose operator[56.571. Thus there may be several ways in which
repressor-operator interactions can affect transcription of the
genetic unit regulated.
Two factors have been isolated that specifically activate
transcription of particular genetic regions. One of these is
the C gene product of the arabinose operon of E. coli. This
protein in the presence of L-arabinose stimulates the transcription of the DNA region coding for the enzymes of L-arabinose
metabolism[58,591. Its mechanism of action still remains to
be elucidated. The other factor, which is known by several
names including catabolite gene activator protein and cyclicAMP receptor protein, is required along with its allosteric
effector 3’-5‘ cyclic AMP for transcription, among others, of
sequences coding for the proteins for lactose, galactose and
arabinose utilization[“’. This factor binds to DNA and
requires the presence of 3’-5‘ cyclic AMP to functionI6’]. It
has been suggested that it may act to lower this activation
temperature for unwinding DNA at the initiation sites for
the affected transcription units[401.
Several other protein factors have also been demonstrated
to activate transcription of various DNA templates under
certain conditions, but the role of many of these factors remains
unclear140! On the other hand, certain proteins known to
be required for the activation of certain genetic regions on
T 4 DNA have been found as subunits of RNA polymerase
isolated from TCinfected E. c.o/i[62,
h31. Again, it is not known
how these proteins effect this activation.
3.2. Termination
Specific termination of transcription is required on bacterial
and the larger bacteriophage genomes to prevent continued
transcription from one genetic unit into an adjacent unit
that should be controlled independently. Certain sequences
in DNA are evidently recognized by E . coli RNA polymerase
as termination signals because many of the transcripts synthesized in virro are discrete molecular species that correspond
to particular genetic units on the
The specificity
of this termination recognition is also reflected in the characteristic sequence of -U-U-U-U-U-U that has been found at or
near the 3’ ends of several RNAs synthesized in vitro; in
most cases this sequence is P ~ r i n e - ( U ) , A ~(”I., ~ ~ ~ ~
Fig. 6. Model for p function. P.T. and P I. indicate genetic positions for
protein synthesis termination and initiation signals, respectively. State I shows
nascent R N A with ribosomes nearing a termination site. State 2 shows
a ribosome being released at the protein synthesis termination signal ( U A A )
on nascent RNA, and it shows a C-rich R N A stretch emerging from the
R N A polymerase (large black circle). State 3 shows the R N A and RNA
polymerase that have been released by action of p that recognized the C-rich
region on the R N A (it also shows a p molecule still attached to the C-rich
R N A region). State4 showsa nascent R N A whosesynthcsis wasnot terminated
by p action. If the termination signal (P.T.) should arise as the result of a
mutation t o a nonsense codon within a cistron (structural gene). p might have
a chance to act at C-rich regions on the nascent R N A that would normally be
obscured or blocked by the presence of a nbosome translating the RNA. This
model could account for the strong polar effects caused by nonsense
At least one other type of termination signal also exists.
This is the signal recognized when an added protein, called
p factor, is also present1661.However, in this case there is
evidence that a nucleotide sequence is recognized on the RNA,
not the DNA[671.Some recent experiments suggest that p
interacts with specific sequences on nascent RNA molecules
to activate a nucleoside triphosphate phosphohydrolase (or
phosphotransferase) activity that is essential for the p-induced
termination ofRNA synthesis[h8."1. This sequence is probably
near rather than at the 3' end of the terminated RNA chain
because it is unlikely that p could fit into the polymerization
site of RNA polymerase. From studies with the effects of
p on transcribing the DNA region for the gal and lac operons.
it has been suggested that p function may be to decrease
the expression of genes at the end of a transcription unit
compared to the genes near the beginning of that transcription
unit['"]. A model for p function is presented in Figure 6.
endo-and eronucleolytic
cleavages, modification
4. Post-transcriptional Maturation Reactions
The synthesis of many RNA molecules requires several
biochemical steps in addition to the transcription of the nucleotide sequences for the RNA from the DNA template. These
steps include cleavage of extra nucleotides from the transcripts,
modification of some nucleotides and, in some cases, the addition of nucleotides at the 3' end of the RNA by a synthetic
reaction that does not depend on a DNA template.
4.1. Removal of Extra Nucleotides
The clearest examples of cleavage of sequences has come
from studies of the synthesis of ribosomal RNAs in eukaryotic
cells'711.In HeLa cells, for example, the 18S, 28S, and 7 s
rRNAs are all derived from a single precursor molecule that
is nearly twice as large a s the combined size of the rRNA
products. This precursor has large stretches of RNA nucleotides that are degraded in the maturation process.
In bacteria the sequences for the 16s and 23s rRNAs
are also in single transcription units["', but in this case a
full length RNA containing both 16s and 23 S rRNA sequences
is rarely detected because the cleavage of the portion with
the 16s rRNA sequence occurs before the synthesis of the
23s portion is finished. However, significant amounts of this
full length RNA molecule arc found in a mutant that contains
reduced levels of ribonuclease 111, an endonuclease specific
for double-stranded RNA[731.This suggests that RNase Ill
is responsible for the cleavage of the portion containing the
16s sequences from the portion containing the 23s sequences.
Further steps in the maturation of the ribosomal RNAs in
E. c d i involve the removal of a few extra nucleotides
from the 5' and 3' ends of the cleaved precursors. In
all, about 22'%, of the nucleotides from the initial transcript
Thus a greater fraction of the ribosomal
RNA transcript is conserved in E. co/i than in HeLa cells.
The synthesis of tRNA molecules also appears to depend
on a similar pattern of cleavage and trimming. Several genes
for tRNA molecules are found clustered on the chromosomes
of E. c0/i17S1
and bacteriophage T4[''. "I. When a short labeling time is used it is also possible to detect labeled RNA
molecules that contain the sequences for two or more tRNA
molecules. Since segments containing sequences for other
tRNAs could also have been cleaved during RNA polymerization the transcription units for the tRNA may contain
sequences for several species plus spacer regions that are
degraded when the primary transcriptsare converted t o mature
tRNA molecules. An outline for these steps is given in Figure
Isolation of a precursor for the tyrosine tRNA (ptRNAT)')
from E. c,o/i has made it possible to assay some of the
Fig. 7 . Scheme for processing of a transcript containing scqiienccs for two
inaturc t R N A niolectiles. t K N A , and t R N A ? . The circlesat the 5' end indicate
a triphosphate group.
enzymes involved in the removal of extra nucleotides from
the 5' and 3' ends of the precursor. A ribonuclease called
RNase P (for precursor) has been identified with this assay1781
and mutants with a temperature-sensitive form of this enzyme
have been isolatedI"! When incubated a t the restrictive temperature, these mutant strains accumulated precursors containing as many as four tRNA sequences in a single RNA.
Cleavage reactions are also believed to be very important
in converting gene transcripts found in the nuclei of eukaryotic
cells into the messenger RNA molecules found in the cytoplasm
of these cells['"I. Most of the nuclear RNA molecules are
much larger than the messenger RNAs in eukaryotic cells;
molecules with molecular weights u p to 2 x lo7 have been
found for the former, whereas even the largest mRNA molecules are less than one-tenth that size. The nuclear RNA
molecules are also metabolically very labile. Over 90':(, of
the larger RNA molecules synthesized in the nucleus are
broken down there and only a small fraction is transferred
to the cytoplasm. This fraction appears to correspond to
the lo'%, of the RNA at the 3' end of the nuclear transcripts
and is believed to be the source of mRNA.
Although definite evidence for specific cleavage of precursor
to a bacterial messenger RNA is lacking, many bacteriophage
mRNA molecules are synthesized as long transcription units
in citro. The T 7 RNA synthesized in ritro with E. c d i RNA
polymerase has a molecular weight of 2.5 x 106[8'1,
yet the
early T 7 species found after infection in normal cells are
all considerably smaller. However, when T 7 infects a strain
of E. c d i that has a defective ribonuclease Ill, the T 7 RNA
is as large as the in rifro products["! Thus ribonuclease
111 may be involved in processing of mRNA as well as rRNA.
4.2. Modification of Nucleotides
Maturation ofmany RNA molecules also involves modification of selected nucleotides in the initial transcripts. Examples
of some modified nucleotides are given in Figure 8. These
modifications are most extensive in the synthesis of tRNA
molecules but are also important for the synthesis of ribosomal
RNA molecules and may be important for the synthesis of
some mRNA molecules[83- 8 S 1 . The most common modification reaction is the addition ofa methyl group to a nucleotide.
The donor of the methyl group is S-adenosylmethionine and
the reactions are catalyzed by specific methyl transferase
enzymes that recognize the nucleotide to be modified in a
specific location. The products are primarily base methyl derivatives, but some 2’-O-methylribose derivatives and some
dimethyl derivatives are also made.
111. x - 0
121. x = s
H, H,
Fig. 8. Structures of uridine ( 1 ), adenosine ( 5 ) , and their modified derivatives
4-thiouridine ( 2 ) . pseudouridine (5-P-D-ribofuranosyluracil) ( 3 ) , 5,6-dihydrouridine (41, and Nh-(2-isopentenyl)adenosinef6).
Another important modification is the isomerization of certain uridylate residues to pseudouridylate (5-ribosyluracil nucleotide). Almost every tRNA molecule has at least one pseudouridylate residue and many have two or more. This isomer
has also been found in ribosomal RNAs of both eukaryotes
and prokaryotes. An enzyme system that catalyzes the isomerization reaction for uridylate residue in tRNA molecules has
been isolated from E. c ~ l i [ ~
~ ]mutants
of Salmonella typhimurian have been found that are lacking one of these enzymes;
these mutant strains are defective in the regulation of certain
amino acid biosynthetic pathwaysrX6l.
Other modification reactions appear to occur exclusively
in tRNA molecules. These include thiolation of uridylate residues, reduction of certain uracil bases to dihydrouracil, and
the addition of isopentenyl group to 6-amino group of adenosine residues near certain anticodons. Many of these modifications are essential for function while others have roles that
have not been identified.
For both tRNA and rRNA some of the modification reactions can occur on the larger precursors. However, the unmodified tRNATy‘from E. coli that has been trimmed to its final
size is a better substrate for modification than its larger precurs0r[873and some of the modifications of rRNA occur only
after certain ribcisomal proteins have boundI7*I. Thus, nucleotide modifications can occur on the initial transcript but the
completion of all the reactions may be one of the final steps
in maturation of tRNA and rRNA molecules.
4.3. Addition of Residues
Finally, an important but not well understood maturation
step for some RNA molecules involves the addition of nucleotides to the 3‘ end of the RNA in a reaction catalyzed by
terminal nucleotide transferases that do not depend on a
DNA template[801.Many of the large nuclear RNAs and
mRNAs in eukaryotic cells have sequences of poly(A) at their
3’ end that are from 150 to 300 nucleotides long. The evidence
that these adenylate residues are added by a post-transcripAngew. Chem. internat. Edit. J Val. 14 ( 1 9 7 5 ) / N o .7
tional reaction is that the appropriate template sequences
for a poly(A) as long as 300 nucleotides have not been found
in the DNA; that enzymes isolated from both nuclei and
cytoplasm of many types of cells catalyze the attachment
of adenylate residues to RNA; and that certain drugs selectively
inhibit the synthesis of the poly(A) sequences. The exact function of these poly(A) sequences is not yet clear, but their
addition appears to be a necessary step in the maturation
of some mRNA species in higher organisms. The fact that
they are found at the 3’ end of both the large nuclear RNA
molecules and mRNA molecules is a further indication that
the 3’ end of the nuclear RNA is a precursor to the mRNA.
Although an enzyme capable of catalyzing the addition of
adenylate residues to RNA has been found in bacteria, no
evidence has been presented that such sequences are present
in any bacterial RNA.
Bacteria and other organisms also have enzymes that can
add cytidylate and adenylate residues to tRNA molecules
lacking the -pCpCpAoH sequence found at the 3’ terminal
of every mature tRNArS8]. The one precursor tRNA that
has been sequenced already, the ptRNATYrof E. coli contains
internally the -pCpCpA- sequence of mature tRNAcx9].Thus
the function of the enzymes that catalyze the addition may
only be to replace this end if it is removed during the trimming
process. However, the pCpCpAoHsequence may not be present
in the primary gene products for all the tRNAs. In such
cases, the post-transcriptional addition reaction catalyzed by
the enzyme would be an important maturation step for the
synthesis of these tRNA molecules.
I thank Dr. 7: Blumenthal for a critical reading of this review.
I am supported by a U.S. National Institutes of Health Career
Development Award (GM-70,422).
Received: October 30, 1974 [A 62 IE]
German version: Angew. Chem. 87, 497 (1975)
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Asymmetric Membranes : Preparation and Applications
By H.-D. Saier and H.
The separation of molecular mixtures by semipermeable membranes under the driving force
of hydrostatic pressure has assumed major importance in recent years. Among other factors
the development of membranes with asymmetric structure which, while having the same separating properties, afford a filtration output many times greater than that of the previously known
symmetrical membranes, was decisive for this method. In the present progress report the
structures of asymmetric membranes are discussed, as well as their preparation from various
polymers and their application to the separation of molecular mixtures.
1. Introduction
Selective mass transport through membranes has been the
subject of numerous scientific investigations for more than
a century. In this work attention was first focused on biologi-
Dr. H.-D. Saier [ +] and Dr. H. Strathmann
Forschungsinstitut Berghof GmbH
74 Tubingen-Lustnau, Berghof (Germany)
[+] To whom correspondence should be addressed.
cal membranes, the importance of which for metabolic processes in living organisms was recognized very early, but more
recently synthetic membranes in particular and their application to separation problems in chemistry and industry have
acquired economic significance. For example, membrane filtration is nowadays used to extract drinking water from the sea,
for fractionating, concentrating, and purifying macromolecular solutions, for the treatment of industrial waste waters,
and for the recovery of valuable constituents. Membrane filtraAngeir. Chem. internat. Edit. I Vol. 14 (197.5)
No. 7
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