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Enzymatic Methods for the Study of RNA in Mammalian Cells


Technologies for the labelling, detection, and manipulation of biomolecules have drastically improved our understanding of cell biology. As the myriad of functional roles for RNA in the cell are increasingly recognized, such tools to enable further investigation of RNA are the subject of much interest.

We demonstrate the site-specific incorporation of nucleobase derivatives bearing fluorophores or affinity labels into a short RNA stem loop recognition motif by exchange of a guanine residue. The RNA-TAG (transglycosylation at guanosine) is carried out by a bacterial (E. coli) tRNA guanine transglycosylase (TGT), whose natural substrate is the nitrogenous base PreQ1. Remarkably, we have successfully incorporated large functional groups including biotin, BODIPY, thiazole orange, and Cy7 through a linker attached to the exocyclic amine of PreQ1. Larger RNAs, such as mRNA transcripts, can be site-specifically labeled if they possess the 17-nucleotide hairpin recognition motif. The RNA-TAG methodology could facilitate the detection and manipulation of RNA molecules by enabling the direct incorporation of functional artificial nucleobases using a simple hairpin recognition element.

Leveraging the ability to site-specifically and covalently label an RNA of interest using E. Coli TGT and unnatural nucleobase substrate, we establish the identification of RNA-protein interactions and the selective enrichment of cellular RNA in mammalian systems. We demonstrate the utility of this approach through the identification of known binding partners of 7SK snRNA via mass spectrometry. Through a minimal 4-nucleotide mutation of the long noncoding RNA HOTAIR, enzymatic biotinylation enables identification putative HOTAIR binding partners in MCF7 breast cancer cells that suggest new potential pathways for oncogenic function. Furthermore, using RNA sequencing and qPCR, we establish that an engineered enzyme variant achieves high levels of labeling selectivity against the human transcriptome allowing for 145-fold enrichment of cellular RNA directly from mammalian cell lysates.

Finally, we examine the use of RNA-TAG labeling in live cells, exploring design principles of the nucleobase substrate for use in applications in RNA imaging and beyond. The flexibility and breadth of this approach suggests that this system could be routinely applied to the functional characterization of RNA, greatly expanding the toolbox available for studying mammalian RNA biology.

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