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Biol Direct. 2010 Oct 20;5:60. doi: 10.1186/1745-6150-5-60.

Riboswitches as hormone receptors: hypothetical cytokinin-binding riboswitches in Arabidopsis thaliana.

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Saint Louis University, Department of Biology, 226 Macelwane Hall, St. Louis, MO 63103, USA.



Riboswitches are mRNA elements that change conformation when bound to small molecules. They are known to be key regulators of biosynthetic pathways in both prokaryotes and eukaryotes.


The hypothesis presented here is that riboswitches function as receptors in hormone perception. We propose that riboswitches initiate or integrate signaling cascades upon binding to classic signaling molecules. The molecular interactions for ligand binding and gene expression control would be the same as for biosynthetic pathways, but the context and the cadre of ligands to consider is dramatically different. The hypothesis arose from the observation that a compound used to identify adenine binding RNA sequences is chemically similar to the classic plant hormone, or growth regulator, cytokinin. A general tenet of the hypothesis is that riboswitch-binding metabolites can be used to make predictions about chemically related signaling molecules. In fact, all cell permeable signaling compounds can be considered as potential riboswitch ligands. The hypothesis is plausible, as demonstrated by a cursory review of the transcriptome and genome of the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana for transcripts that i) contain an adenine aptamer motif, and ii) are also predicted to be cytokinin-regulated. Here, one gene, CRK10 (for Cysteine-rich Receptor-like Kinase 10, At4g23180), contains an adenine aptamer-related sequence and is down-regulated by cytokinin approximately three-fold in public gene expression data. To illustrate the hypothesis, implications of cytokinin-binding to the CRK10 mRNA are discussed.


At the broadest level, screening various cell permeable signaling molecules against random RNA libraries and comparing hits to sequence and gene expression data bases could determine how broadly the hypothesis applies. Specific cases, such as CRK10 presented here, will require experimental validation of direct ligand binding, altered RNA conformation, and effect on gene expression. Each case will be different depending on the signaling pathway and the physiology involved.


This would be a very direct signal perception mechanism for regulating gene expression; rivaling animal steroid hormone receptors, which are frequently ligand dependent transcription initiation factors. Riboswitch-regulated responses could occur by modulating target RNA stability, translatability, and alternative splicing - all known expression platforms used in riboswitches. The specific illustration presented, CRK10, implies a new mechanism for the perception of cytokinin, a classic plant hormone. Experimental support for the hypothesis would add breadth to the growing list of important functions attributed to riboswitches.


This article was reviewed by Anthony Poole, Rob Knight, Mikhail Gelfand.

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