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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2010 Dec 28;107(52):22493-8. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1013969107. Epub 2010 Dec 6.

Discovery of a minimal form of RNase P in Pyrobaculum.

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Department of Biochemistry and Center for RNA Biology, Ohio State University, 484 West Twelfth Avenue, Columbus, OH 43210, USA.


RNase P RNA is an ancient, nearly universal feature of life. As part of the ribonucleoprotein RNase P complex, the RNA component catalyzes essential removal of 5' leaders in pre-tRNAs. In 2004, Li and Altman computationally identified the RNase P RNA gene in all but three sequenced microbes: Nanoarchaeum equitans, Pyrobaculum aerophilum, and Aquifex aeolicus (all hyperthermophiles) [Li Y, Altman S (2004) RNA 10:1533-1540]. A recent study concluded that N. equitans does not have or require RNase P activity because it lacks 5' tRNA leaders. The "missing" RNase P RNAs in the other two species is perplexing given evidence or predictions that tRNAs are trimmed in both, prompting speculation that they may have developed novel alternatives to 5' pre-tRNA processing. Using comparative genomics and improved computational methods, we have now identified a radically minimized form of the RNase P RNA in five Pyrobaculum species and the related crenarchaea Caldivirga maquilingensis and Vulcanisaeta distributa, all retaining a conventional catalytic domain, but lacking a recognizable specificity domain. We confirmed 5' tRNA processing activity by high-throughput RNA sequencing and in vitro biochemical assays. The Pyrobaculum and Caldivirga RNase P RNAs are the smallest naturally occurring form yet discovered to function as trans-acting precursor tRNA-processing ribozymes. Loss of the specificity domain in these RNAs suggests altered substrate specificity and could be a useful model for finding other potential roles of RNase P. This study illustrates an effective combination of next-generation RNA sequencing, computational genomics, and biochemistry to identify a divergent, formerly undetectable variant of an essential noncoding RNA gene.

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