Modeling of the ribosome and the RNA polymerase molecular motors

Speaker: Bahareh Shakiba
Department: Institute for Advanced Studies in Basic Sciences, Zanjan, Iran
Location: TU Delft
Date: July 12, 2017
Author: Teun Huijben

Bahareh has just finished her PhD and is now doing a Postdoc at the IASBS in Iran. In this talk she explained what she has studied during her PhD, in which she was interested in the two most important molecular motors present in the Central Dogma: the RNA polymerase and the ribosome. Both proteins can be seen as molecular motors since they use energy to move along a polymer (either DNA or mRNA). She was especially interested in the dynamics of these motors, so their pausing-behaviour and force-dependence.

The first part of the talk was about modeling the RNA polymerase (RNAP). Bahareh proposed a model to simulate the transcription steps using two components of the RNAP: the bridge helix and the trigger loop, which are both located very close the active site of RNAP (see Figure 1). The bridge helix promotes opening of the double stranded DNA helix and the trigger loop binds to the DNA and drags the DNA through the polymerase. The internal movement of components in the active site of RNAP during the transcription of a single nucleotide can be divided into multiple steps, which each having a energy barrier. Using the energy barriers calculated by other people, she computed the average duration of a pause during transcription. The average length of these pauses was the same as found in experiments.


ÈFigure 1: The bridge helix and the trigger loop are located near the active site of RNA polymerase. [M. Thomm, University of Regensburg]

However, I have some critical notes on this finding. First of all, she didn’t explain the model very well, so it was unclear to us in what way this model was new. Especially given the fact that many people do research on this subject and multiple models already exist. Besides that she didn’t mention the reaction rates she used in the simulations and where they came from.

Another important aspect is that she didn’t show the distribution of pauses. Normally it is very interesting to look at a histogram of pauses, to see how they are distributed, this can be Gaussian, exponential or Gamma, for example. Seeing the distribution will give a lot of information about the underlying processes and indicates if it is fair to simple take the average pausing time and compare this with experiments.

The second part of her presentation Bahareh talked about modeling ribosome dynamics. A ribosome is a protein complex that translated the mRNA to a protein. Bahareh studied how  mRNA-hairpins influence the processivity of the ribosome, since hairpins are formed in single stranded RNA and form roadblocks in front of the ribosome.

The active site of a ribosome has three free places to bind a tRNA molecule: the E- (exit), P- (polymer) and A-(active)-site (see Figure 2). The ribosome moves forward by first displacing the large subunit, followed by movement of the small subunit. If the mRNA in front of the ribosome has internally formed a hairpin, this can either result in necessary unwinding of the hairpin or a frameshift of the ribosome. The latter means that the ribosome temporarily detaches from the mRNA, resulting in errors in the produced protein.


Figure 2: The active site of the ribosome has three active sites, the E-, P- and A-site. A tRNA loaded with an amino acid can bind to the ribosome and transfer its amino acid to the growing peptide chain. A hairpin in front of the ribosome. [Shakiba 2016, arXiv: 1607.0719v1]

There are currently two ideas of how ribosomes solve the hairpins. One states that the moving ribosome applies a force on the hairpin forcing it to unwind. The other theory states that the ribosome itself actively uses helicase activity to make the mRNA single stranded. Both theories are simulated in the model. Then she compared the model with experimental data of ribosomes translating mRNAs having hairpins, while applying a force on the mRNA. This comparison revealed that the model with ribosomes having helicase activity did the best job in explaining the experimental data. Giving the indication that ribosomes indeed have their own helicase activity.

As already stated in this report, the talk of Bahareh was quite hard to follow, especially because she didn’t explain the models very well. Therefore, the first part of her talk didn’t really impress me, since I didn’t see what was new and surprising in her model. However, the second part was easier to understand and got a clear, well described message.


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