New & Noteworthy

Ticket to Transcribe

February 04, 2015

tRNACUG may not just be for translation anymore:

Just like a passenger needs a ticket to travel from one place to another, the Gln3 transcription factor needs a specific tRNA to travel from the cytoplasm to the nucleus. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Back before airplanes and cars, when times got tough people would often take trains to what they hoped were greener pastures.  And to hitch a ride on a train, they’d usually need to have a ticket. Turns out the same is true for Gln3, a transcription factor in yeast.

Basically, Gln3 stays in the cytoplasm as long as there are good sources of nitrogen available to the cell.  When these sources run out, Gln3 moves from the cytoplasm to the nucleus where it can turn on genes that can help the yeast cope with its new situation.

In a new study in GENETICS, Tate and coworkers have identified one of the tickets that lets Gln3 take the trip to the nucleus. And it was totally unexpected. To get to the nucleus, Gln3 needs a fully functional glutamine tRNACUG. No, really.

To get this evidence, Tate and coworkers used a reporter in which Gln3 was linked to GFP (green fluorescent protein). They tracked the location of Gln3 in the cell using fluorescence microscopy.

Using a temperature-sensitive mutant of tRNACUG, sup70-65, the authors showed that at the nonpermissive temperature of 30 degrees C, Gln3 could not translocate to the nucleus under a wide variety of conditions in which nitrogen was limiting. Gln3 had no problems translocating at the permissive temperature of 22 degrees C, and in wild-type cells Gln3 translocated at both temperatures. Clearly tRNACUG is doing something important in this process!

The next experiment showed that tRNACUG was more like a one-way ticket. Once Gln3 entered the nucleus under nitrogen starvation conditions at the permissive temperature, switching to the nonpermissive temperature had little effect. Gln3 stayed put.

A possible wrinkle in these experiments was that cells harboring sup70-65 formed chains reminiscent of pseudohyphae at the nonpermissive temperature no matter what the nitrogen conditions. One possible explanation for the results seen here was that many of these cells lacked nuclei. In this case, they might not see nuclear translocation because there was no nucleus to translocate to.

In the course of these studies, Tate and coworkers showed that adding rapamycin mimicked the effects of nitrogen starvation with one big difference—nuclear localization happened much more rapidly than with nitrogen starvation. This fast response allowed the authors to look at Gln3 localization while visualizing nuclei by staining DNA with DAPI (which gives a short-lived signal). They were able to use the DAPI to see that these cells did indeed have nuclei and that when they raised the temperature, Gln3 did not colocalize with the DAPI stained nuclei.  Gln3 was being kept out of nuclei at the nonpermissive temperature.

So it really looks like Gln3 needs a working tRNACUG to get into the nucleus. There are a couple of possible ways that this tRNA could be needed for Gln3 to make the trip.

In the first model, the tRNA is part of a complex that allows Gln3 to make the trip to the nucleus. In this model, it is almost as if Gln3 (or one of its compatriots) is clutching its ticket, tRNACUG. In the second, less fun model, the tRNA is required to translate a protein involved in Gln3’s transit. Which model is the correct one is still up in the air, but it will be interesting to see which is the right one.

This was the most astonishing finding in the article, but it was by no means the only one. We don’t have the time to go into the other experiments, which, among other things, teased apart differences in the four or five distinguishable pathways that work to turn on the cell’s nitrogen response.

This work highlights a recurring theme in basic research: we may think we know everything that’s going on (tRNAs just help to translate proteins, right?) but just about every time we look more closely, there is much more to see than first meets the eye. Being in the right place at the right time is essential, whether you’re escaping the Dust Bowl in The Grapes of Wrath or a transcription factor responding to the lack of a nutrient. It’s not so surprising that the cell has drafted every possible player into this process, even a lowly tRNA. 

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

Since the title has this song stuck in our heads, we thought you might want to hear it too. Enjoy!

Categories: Research Spotlight

Tags: transcription factor localization, nitrogen utilization, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, tRNA