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When Polymerases Collide

October 25, 2012

Lots of recent studies are showing that transcription happens over way more DNA than anyone previously thought. For example, the ENCODE project has shown that most of a genome gets transcribed into RNA in humans, fruit flies and nematodes. This transcriptional exuberance was recently confirmed in the yeast S. cerevisiae as well.

There is also a whole lot of antisense transcription going on. Taken together, these two observations suggest that there are lots of opportunities for two polymerases to run headlong into each other. And this could be a big problem if polymerases can’t easily get past one another.

Goats butting heads

What happens when RNA polymerases meet head-on?

Imagine that the two polymerases clash in the middle of some essential gene. If they can’t somehow resolve this situation, the gene would effectively be shut off. Bye bye cell!

Of course this is all theoretical at this point. After all, smaller polymerases like those from T3 and T4 bacteriophages manage to sneak past one another. It looks like this isn’t the case for RNA polymerase II (RNAPII), though.

As a new study by Hobson and coworkers in Molecular Cell shows, when two yeast RNAPII molecules meet in a head on collision on the same piece of DNA, they have real trouble getting past each other. This is true both in vitro and in vivo.

For the in vivo experiments, the authors created a situation where they could easily monitor the amount of transcription close in and far away from a promoter in yeast. Basically they pointed two inducible promoters, from the GAL10 and GAL7 genes, at one another and eliminated any transcription terminators between them. They also included G-less cassettes (regions encoding guanine-free RNA) at different positions relative to the GAL10 promoter, so that they could use RNAse T1 (which cleaves RNA at G residues) to look at how much transcription starts out and how much makes it to the end.

When they just turned on the GAL10 promoter, they saw equal amounts of transcription from both the beginning and the end of the GAL10 transcript. But when they turned on both GAL10 and GAL7, they saw only 21% of the more distant G-less cassette compared to the one closer to the GAL10 promoter.

They interpret this result as meaning the two polymerases have run into each other and stalled between the two promoters. And their in vitro data backs this up.

Using purified elongation complexes, they showed that when two polymerases charge at each other on the same template, transcripts of intermediate length are generated. They again interpret this as the polymerases stopping dead in their tracks once they run into one another. Consistent with this, they showed that these stalled polymerases are rock stable using agarose gel electrophoresis.

Left unchecked, polymerases that can’t figure out how to get past one another would obviously be bad for a cell. Even if it were a relatively rare occurrence, eventually two polymerases would clash somewhere important, with the end result being a dead cell. So how do cells get around this thorny problem?

King Arthur and the Black Knight

To get past the Black Knight, Arthur had to destroy him. Hopefully the cell has more tricks up its sleeve than that!

One way is to get rid of the polymerases. The lab previously showed that if a polymerase is permanently stalled because of some irreparable DNA lesion, the cell ubiquitinates the polymerase and targets it for destruction. In this study they used ubiquitin mutants to show that the same system can work at these paused polymerases too. Ubiquitylation-compromised yeast took longer to clear the polymerases than did their wild type brethren.

The authors think that this isn’t the only mechanism by which polymerases break free though. They are actively seeking factors that can help resolve these crashed polymerases. It will be interesting to see what cool way the cell has devised to resolve this dilemma.