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RNase P, Unmasked

August 28, 2014

No matter how fancy, all masks hide the identity of a wearer. And no matter how fancy an RNase P is, all it likely does is trim tRNA precursors. Images from Wikimedia Commons

Masks for a masquerade party come in a dazzling array of shapes and sizes.  And yet they all pretty much serve the same purpose — they hide the identity of the wearer.

Biology sometimes has its own dazzling array of cellular machines all doing the same thing.  One of the best examples of this is RNase P.   This enzyme trims tRNA precursors into mature tRNAs and has pretty much been around in one form or another since there were cells.  And yet, despite this common heritage and its one apparent job, it seems that no two are exactly alike.

In bacteria, RNase P is a piece of RNA that serves as the enzymatic component, complexed with a single protein.  Most Archaea and eukaryotes kept the RNA and added a varying number of protein subunits to make some wildly complex enzymes.  But in a few eukaryotes, the RNA has been dropped completely and a single protein substituted to provide the enzymatic activity. 

A new study out in PLOS Biology by Weber and coworkers shows that, despite this structural diversity, all the different forms of RNase P pretty much do the same thing.  Just like someone can hide who they are with any old mask, a cell can trim its tRNA precursors with any old RNase P.  Well, at least the simple RNase P of Arabidopsis thaliana, comprised of a single enzymatic protein subunit, can replace the enzymatic RNA and at least one protein subunit from the much more complex RNase P of our friend Saccharomyces cerevisiae!

This suggests that evolution has done something weird here.  It took what most likely started out as an RNA enzyme and made various changes to it over time.  Despite these changes, the enzyme kept doing the same thing: trimming tRNA precursors.  It is as if the enzyme went through a bewildering set of evolutionary changes and ended up at nearly the same place doing the same thing.   

How did Weber and coworkers arrive at this startling finding? Yeast RNase P consists of nine protein subunits and an RNA component that comes from the RPR1 gene.  The first thing Weber and coworkers did was to show that the lethal phenotype of a rpr1 knockout could be rescued by the single-subunit RNase P from either the plant Arabidopsis thaliana or the trypanosome Trypanosoma brucei.  The RNase P in these beasts consists of only a single polypeptide.

The authors next integrated the RNase P gene of A. thaliana into the genome of a yeast cell lacking both RPR1 and one of the protein subunits of RNase P, Rpr2p, and put it through a set of rigorous tests.  To their surprise, they found that this strain does a perfectly fine job of processing tRNA precursors.  There was no buildup of intermediates and, if anything, the A. thaliana RNase P proved to be a bit more efficient at trimming these tRNA precursors.

Of course just because the simpler RNase P can substitute for the RNA subunit of the more complex RNase P, that does not mean the two do the exact same thing.  It could be that the more complex form of RNase P has a broader set of functions, but that the only function absolutely required for life is the trimming of tRNA precursors.  But this does not appear to be the case.

Previous research showing that unprocessed forms of other RNAs accumulate at the restrictive temperature in an rpr1-ts mutant had suggested that yeast RNase P also processes a number of other RNAs besides tRNAs.  Since Weber and coworkers didn’t see these unprocessed forms accumulating in their strain, either the simple A. thaliana RNase P was able to process those other RNAs, or they’re actually not RNase P substrates. 

By analyzing the phenotypes of several different RNase P mutants, they showed that the other RNAs aren’t RNase P substrates; apparently their accumulation in the rpr1-ts mutant is an indirect effect.  All in all, these results show that the added complexity of yeast RNase P did not arise so that the enzyme could also process these other RNAs.

The authors next set out to see if there was any subtle difference between the two strains.  In other words, does replacing the RNA component of yeast RNase P with the catalytic protein subunit from A. thaliana have any effect on the yeast whatsoever? 

Weber and coworkers tested this by comparing the growth of the two strains under a wide range of conditions.  They saw no significant effects in any of the over 30 conditions tested.  If the yeast RNase P has any added features over the A. thaliana one, they are very, very subtle.

Pushing to see if they could find any differences, they even set the two up in direct competition to see which was the best suited for survival.  They did this by adding GFP to one or the other strain so that they could follow it, putting the two strains together, and growing them for many generations to see if one routinely outcompeted the other.  Neither did…it was a draw.  There appears to be no advantage to having the yeast RNase P despite its complexity!

This is weird.  It is almost like round trip evolution.  RNase P starts out as a single RNA that processes tRNA precursors.  Then as it moves around the tree of life, it picks up various bells and whistles and occasionally is even replaced by a protein.  And yet in the end, all RNase P’s are strangely equivalent.  As if all of that evolving was for naught!

Obviously there are still plenty of unanswered questions.  Why did yeast build up this complexity if there is seemingly no advantage?  And is the protein subunit superior to the RNA subunit?  If so, this last question would at least explain why a few beasts evolved away from the RNA catalytic subunit to the protein one – but still wouldn’t answer why all those proteins are glomming onto the perfectly adequate RNA that probably predates proteins.  More studies in yeast may help us “unmask” the answer to this fundamental question.

by D. Barry Starr, Ph.D., Director of Outreach Activities, Stanford Genetics