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Logo of nihpaAbout Author manuscriptsSubmit a manuscriptHHS Public Access; Author Manuscript; Accepted for publication in peer reviewed journal;
Nat Chem Biol. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2010 December 1.
Published in final edited form as:
PMCID: PMC2873063

This article has been retractedRetraction in: Nat Chem Biol. 2015 March 17; 10(3): 239    See also: PMC Retraction Policy

Reprogramming Bacteria to Seek and Destroy a Herbicide


A major goal of synthetic biology is to reprogram cells to perform complex tasks. Here we show how a combination of in vitro and in vivo selection rapidly identifies a synthetic riboswitch that activates protein translation in response to the herbicide atrazine. We further demonstrate that this riboswitch can reprogram bacteria to migrate in the presence of atrazine. Finally, we show that incorporating a gene from an atrazine catabolic pathway allows these cells to seek and destroy atrazine.

A major goal of synthetic biology is to program cells to autonomously perform complex tasks, such as synthesizing small molecules, delivering drugs, or cleaning up the environment. For cells to act autonomously, they must be able to sense cues from their environment and react predictably. Bacteria, such as E. coli, have evolved a variety of protein-based environmental sensors that respond to chemical signals such as amino acids, dipeptides, and sugars13. In principle, the specificity of these protein sensors can be reengineered by either rational design or evolution-based methods47, but these methods typically require a pre-existing scaffold, and dramatically altering the ligand specificity of a protein can be difficult on the laboratory time scale. While it remains challenging to create protein sensors de novo, it is possible to create novel sensors comprised of RNA. Powerful in vitro selection techniques, such as SELEX, can sort through large libraries (>1014 members) to isolate RNA sequences known as aptamers, which tightly and specifically bind to various ligands8,9.

In the past several years, our group and others have shown that starting with a known aptamer, it is possible to create a variety of synthetic riboswitches, which are RNA sequences that regulate gene expression in a ligand-dependent fashion without the need for protein cofactors1030. Using synthetic riboswitches, we have created cells with a number of potentially useful phenotypes, including designer auxotrophs that depend on the presence of a non-metabolite for survival11, as well as cells that can selectively follow a ligand that they would not otherwise detect12. While these studies were important for demonstrating proof-of-principle, they all employed the same theophylline-binding aptamer that was described over 15 years ago31. Indeed, nearly all synthetic riboswitches reported to date have been derived from aptamers that recognize a handful of ligands, including theophylline31, tetramethylrosamine and other intercalating dyes10, tetracycline32, and aminoglycoside antibiotics10,33,34. However, for synthetic riboswitches to be most useful for reprogramming cellular behavior, it is necessary to develop riboswitches that selectively recognize new classes of ligands.

We recently reported several methods to create synthetic riboswitches from pre-existing aptamers13,16 including a selection based on ligand-induced changes in cell motility14. With powerful new selection methods in hand, we turned our attention to reprogramming E. coli to respond to a completely new target, the herbicide atrazine (1; Figure 1). We chose to reprogram cells to follow atrazine for three reasons. First, from an environmental perspective, atrazine is the most heavily used herbicide in the United States, where it is used to control the growth of grasses and broadleaf weeds in crops such as corn and sorghum35. Atrazine is also a persistent environmental pollutant, and widespread contamination of groundwater has been reported in the US35. As such, there are increasing concerns over the toxicity of atrazine in the environment. Second, from a chemical perspective, atrazine is an attractive target for interacting with RNA because it displays both hydrogen bond donors and acceptors. Third, from a biotechnology perspective, the atrazine catabolic pathway is well-characterized biochemically, and because each of the enzymes can be expressed and purified in E. coli3639, it should be possible to engineer cells that not only follow, but also degrade atrazine.

Figure 1
Chemical structures and synthetic scheme

Here we show how a combination of in vitro and in vivo selection identifies a synthetic riboswitch that responds to atrazine, and how this riboswitch can be used to reprogram E. coli to follow atrazine through a process known as pseudotaxis. Finally, we show that by incorporating a previously described atrazine-catabolizing gene, cells can be engineered to seek and destroy atrazine.


Aptamer selection

To select aptamers that recognize atrazine, we synthesized an atrazine derivative and coupled it to a solid support as shown in Figure 1.

A library of DNA sequences comprised of 40 random nucleotides (N40) flanked by a T7 promoter sequence at the 5´-end and a second constant sequence at the 3´-end was prepared from three chemically synthesized oligonucleotides using PCR. This DNA library was transcribed to RNA using T7 RNA polymerase, the RNA was gel-purified, and was subjected to 9 rounds of SELEX using atrazine to elute the RNAs bound to the solid support. Counter selection was performed after the 9th round by first washing the column with the atrazine catabolite hydroxyatrazine to remove non-selective binders, and then with atrazine to elute the selective binders. The remaining RNA pool was subjected to two additional rounds of SELEX using atrazine to elute the bound RNA (Figure 2). At the end 12 rounds of in vitro selection, approximately 55% of the RNAs in the pool bound to the atrazine-containing column and could be eluted with atrazine. Sequencing of 33 individual clones after round 12 revealed that the pool remained diverse. Inspection of the aligned sequences (Supplementary Figure S1) showed that all sequences were unique, and that no sequence was closely related to more than one other in the set.

Figure 2
Progress of the SELEX experiment

To control gene expression, riboswitches must not only bind the ligand, they must also undergo a conformational change on a physiologically relevant timescale. Traditionally, SELEX experiments have been designed to find the tightest-binding RNAs. However, switching requires a kinetic component that is typically not controlled during the SELEX process. A potential limitation of focusing primarily on the thermodynamics of binding in SELEX is that not all aptamers that are capable of binding a ligand tightly may be able to function in the context of a riboswitch. Indeed, a previous study demonstrated that some tetracycline-binding aptamers were able to mediate gene expression in yeast, while others were not, even though their affinities for the ligand were comparable26. Because it remains difficult to predict which aptamers will function best in the context of a riboswitch, we employed an alternative strategy that is similar to one recently reported22. Rather than select a single aptamer with high affinity to atrazine, we decided to first select a library of aptamers that displayed moderate affinities toward atrazine and to then sort this library using a functional screen for riboswitch activity. We envisioned that the library of aptamers obtained after the 12 rounds of in vitro selection could be cloned upstream of a random RNA sequence in the 5´-untranslated region (5´-UTR) of the cheZ gene that controls E. coli motility (Figure 3a). By introducing this library into a cheZ-deficient strain of E. coli and plating these cells onto atrazine-free semisolid media, we could select for clones that did not express cheZ in the absence of atrazine simply by picking the cells that did not move, by analogy to our previous studies using the theophylline aptamer14. After one or more rounds of negative selection, we could plate these cells on semisolid media containing atrazine and pick the cells that moved (Figure 3b). This screening method has several key advantages. It is high throughput (>105 clones can be assayed on a single Petri dish); it is very inexpensive to perform (it requires only atrazine, agar, a Petri dish, a ruler, and pipet tips); and it is user-friendly (simply plate the cells and wait 12 h.). Finally, a ligand-induced increase in motility is a potentially desirable phenotype for applications in bioremediation, where cells could be engineered to selectively migrate toward a specific contaminant.

Figure 3
Motility selection for riboswitches

Motility Selection for Synthetic Riboswitches

Starting with ~600,000 clones, we performed two rounds of negative selection by picking the cells that did not move on semisolid agar in the absence of atrazine. These cells were then plated onto semisolid agar containing atrazine (500 µM) and the cells that migrated the furthest from the center of the plate were picked. The 5´-UTRs of these putative riboswitches were cloned upstream of a previously-described reporter gene that encodes the first 61 amino acids of the IS10 transposase fused to the N-terminus of the β-galactosidase reporter gene11. This construct (referred to from here on as lacZ) allowed us to quantify the gene expression in the presence and absence of atrazine. E. coli were transformed with this library and 96 clones were assayed for β-galactosidase activity in the absence and presence of atrazine (750 µM). Of these, six showed at least a 4-fold increase in β-galactosidase activity in the presence of atrazine, and sequencing revealed that they were identical.

To confirm the switching activity of the single clone, we determined the dose-response relationship with atrazine (Figure 4a). Atrazine produced a dose-dependent increase in β-galactosidase activity up to 750 µM; at higher concentrations, atrazine precipitated from solution. Hydroxyatrazine, which was selected against during SELEX, produced no significant increase in β-galactosidase activity (Figure 4a), and deletion of the putative aptamer sequence from the 5´-UTR eliminated the response to atrazine (Supplementary Figure S2).

Figure 4
In vivo characterization of atrazine-dependent riboswitches

To confirm the atrazine-dependent motility of the individual clone, we replaced the lacZ gene with cheZ, introduced this construct into a cheZ-deficient strain of E. coli, and plated these cells in the presence and absence of atrazine. As shown in Figure 4b and 4c, over time, cells move further in the presence of atrazine.

Characterization of an Atrazine-Dependent Riboswitch

As a first step towards understanding the switching mechanism, we asked whether the riboswitch acted at the transcriptional or the translational level. To do this, we created a transcriptional fusion between two genes. The first gene encoded the 5´-untranslated region from the atrazine riboswitch and the first 61-amino acids of the lacZ reporter gene followed by 3 in-frame stop codons (this gene, referred to as lacZΔ, does not produce β-galactosidase activity). The lacZΔ gene was fused through a 28 base pair spacer to a second gene comprised of a ribosome-binding site and the full-length lacZ sequence as previously described (Supplementary Figure S3a)11. If the riboswitch acts at the transcriptional level, or is the result of an increase in mRNA stability, expression of the second gene in the fusion (lacZ) would be atrazine-dependent. However, if the riboswitch activates translation, expression of the first gene (lacZΔ) would be atrazine-dependent, but expression of the second gene (lacZ) would be atrazine-independent, as this second gene lacks the aptamer and has its own ribosome binding site (Supplementary Figure S3a). Expression of this construct in E. coli shows that β-galactosidase activity is not atrazine-dependent, which suggests that this riboswitch acts at the translational level (Supplementary Figure S3b). Consistent with this interpretation, a Northern blotting experiment showed no significant differences in the amount of riboswitch encoding RNA when the cells were grown in the presence or absence of atrazine, indicating that atrazine does not affect the level of transcription (Supplementary Figure 4).

To gain further insight into the conformational changes that underlie switching, we produced a 156 nt fragment of the riboswitch by in vitro transcription and performed in-line probing experiments. In an in-line probing experiment, RNA is allowed to spontaneously hydrolyze under mildly basic conditions. The hydrolysis rate of a given nucleotide depends on the in-line character of the 2´-OH nucleophile and the 5´-OH leaving group of the subsequent nucleotide, which is dictated by the conformation of the RNA. In general, flexible regions of RNA undergo faster hydrolysis than more rigid regions, because flexible regions can sample conformations that favor hydrolysis40,41. Comparing the results from in-line probing performed in the presence and absence of the ligand allows us to speculate on a possible switching mechanism.

The results of in-line probing experiments performed in the presence and absence of atrazine (1 mM) are shown in Figure 5a. In the presence of atrazine, several nucleotides show reduced cleavage, consistent with formation of secondary structure upon ligand binding. Notably, all of these sites are located within the “N40” region that was randomized during the SELEX experiment, which suggests that this region is the aptamer that binds atrazine. In addition, several sites located between the aptamer and the start codon show increased cleavage in the presence of atrazine. Additional in-line probing experiments show that hydroxyatrazine does not alter the cleavage of the aptamer (Supplementary Figure S5). Taken together, the data allow us to propose a model for riboswitch function (Figure 5b). In the absence of atrazine, a portion of the N10 region introduced in the motility selections forms a pseudoknot by pairing with part of the aptamer. This pairing reduces the accessibility of a purine-rich sequence (AGGGUGG) that may serve as the ribosome-binding site (RBS). Upon atrazine binding, the pseudoknot is disrupted, revealing the RBS (as evidenced by the increased cleavage), and stabilizing a stem loop in the aptamer (decreased cleavage).

Figure 5
Characterization of atrazine-dependent riboswitches

To test this model for riboswitch function, we introduced 4 mutations that were expected to disrupt the pseudoknot, while still maintaining a purine-rich sequence (GGAA) located 7 bases upstream of the start codon that could serve as a ribosome binding site. We predicted that by weakening the interactions within the pseudoknot, that the ribosome binding site would become more accessible in the absence of ligand, leading to leaky expression. As expected, this riboswitch functioned poorly in E. coli (Figure 5c) with increased background expression in the absence of atrazine, and only a modest (~50%) increase in gene expression in the presence of atrazine. A potential concern is that the 4 mutations would alter the strength of the ribosome binding site. To determine whether this was the case, we deleted the aptamer sequence from both the parent and the mutant riboswitch, which allowed us to measure the ability of the ribosome binding sites to initiate translation of the reporter gene. As shown in Supplementary Figure S6, both the parent and mutant ribosome binding sites lead to similar levels of β-galactosidase expression and, as expected, deletion of the aptamer eliminates sensitivity to atrazine.

If atrazine induces the structural modulation of the 5´-UTR, the binding of atrazine by the RNA should exhibit the characteristics of a receptor-ligand interaction. Thus, a plot of the degree of structural modulation at each site vs. atrazine concentration is expected to yield an apparent dissociation constant (apparent Kd), which represents the concentration of atrazine needed to convert half of the RNAs into the bound conformation. If we assume that a single binding event is responsible for the observed conformational changes, the Kd values calculated from different positions should converge on a single value. However, if non-specific interactions were responsible for these changes, the apparent Kd values would likely vary between positions.

Supplementary Figure S7 shows the fraction of the RNA cleaved at 9 separate positions as a function of atrazine concentration (the primary data are shown in Supplementary Figure S8). Fitting these results to a 1:1 binding model reveals an apparent Kd for atrazine of approximately 2 µM at 25 °C. While this value differs from the concentration of atrazine needed to activate the synthetic riboswitch in vivo (~500 µM; Figure 4a), this may result from several factors, including transport of atrazine into the cell, the potential for an efflux mechanism, and differing physiological concentrations of ions such as Mg2+, which may affect ligand binding in the cell. We have observed such differences between the behavior of synthetic riboswitches in vitro and in vivo previously11.

Reprogramming Cells to Seek and Destroy Atrazine

With an atrazine-sensitive synthetic riboswitch capable of controlling cell motility, we asked whether adding an atrazine catabolizing gene would allow our engineered E. coli to follow and degrade atrazine. Although atrazine was introduced into the environment within the past 60 years, a variety of bacterial species isolated from around the world have evolved mechanisms to degrade atrazine. One of the best-characterized genes is atzA from Pseudomonas sp. ADP, which encodes a chlorohydrolase that converts atrazine to hydroxyatrazine42. Unlike atrazine, hydroxyatrazine does not act as an herbicide, it is not considered a threat to human health (and is thus unregulated), and it is more strongly sorbed to soils than atrazine43,44. Thus, enhancing the rate of conversion of atrazine to hydroxyatrazine is useful in the bioremediation of contaminated sites. Additionally, since our synthetic riboswitch responds to atrazine but not to hydroxyatrazine, we anticipate that cells can be engineered to continually respond to atrazine, and not its breakdown product.

We engineered cells such that expression of the CheZ motility protein was under the control of the atrazine-dependent synthetic riboswitch, while both the atrazine chlorohydrolase (AtzA) and a green fluorescent protein (GFPuv) were constitutively expressed. These reprogrammed cells were inoculated at the center of a semisolid agar plate that was prepared from heated media containing 4 mM atrazine, which precipitated upon cooling to form a milky film on the surface of the plate. Such suspensions of atrazine in agar have been previously used to investigate catabolism by atzA as breakdown of atrazine produces a clearing zone in the media that is visible against the milky background42. After incubation overnight at 30 °C, the cells migrated away from the inoculation point and formed concentric rings of alternating light and dark regions. Examination of the GFP fluorescence indicates that the light rings are populated with cells at high density, while the dark regions contain fewer cells and, based on the clearing of the milkiness in the bright-field image, less atrazine. Cells lacking the atzA gene do not produce the dark rings, suggesting that formation of the dark rings depends on atrazine catabolism.

To further establish the origins of rings shown in Figure 6, we investigated the motility of cells harboring the atrazine-sensitive riboswitch and atzA on minimal media. When chemotactic E. coli are inoculated on rich semisolid media, they produce concentric rings45,46. These rings form because cells at the migratory front consume the best chemoattractant, leaving the remaining cells to follow the next-best chemoattractant(s) in the media45,46. E. coli grown on minimal media supplemented with one or more chemoattractants produce a number of concentric rings that corresponds to the number of chemoattractants in the media. To determine whether this behavior contributes to ring formation here, we plated the engineered cells onto semisolid minimal media containing atrazine and either a single chemoattractant (aspartate) or two chemoattractants (aspartate and threonine). As shown in Supplementary Figure S9, cells grown on atrazine (500 µM) with only one chemoattractant (aspartate) form an outer ring of cells at low density that surrounds an inner ring of cells at higher density. When the concentration of atrazine is increased to 4 mM, the outer ring of cells is obscured due to atrazine in the media, but replica-plating these cells on solid agar indicates that the cell profile is similar to that observed on 500 µM atrazine. Additionally, a clearing zone is visible around the inner ring, suggesting that the higher cell density responsible for atrazine degradation in this region. When cells are grown with two chemoattractants (aspartate and threonine), three rings form at low atrazine concentrations—one diffuse outer ring that surrounds two inner rings of cells at higher density. At higher atrazine concentrations, the outer ring is again obscured, but two clearing zones are evident at the edges of the inner rings.

Figure 6
Motility of reprogrammed E. coli cells expressing GFP

Taken together, these results allow us to suggest a mechanism to explain the formation of concentric rings in Figure 6. We believe that three main factors are involved in ring formation: the activation of a pseudotactic response to atrazine provided by the riboswitch; the catabolism of natural chemoattractants in the media; and the catabolism of atrazine itself. We hypothesize that in the presence of atrazine, cells advance radially from the inoculation site with a diffusion coefficient that is proportional to the atrazine concentration in media. This behavior, known as pseudotaxis, closely parallels that observed in our previous work using a theophylline-sensitive synthetic riboswitch to control the expression of cheZ12. Activation of cheZ expression enables the cells to perform chemotaxis towards chemoattractants in rich media, of which there are several. The chemotactic response results in distance-dependent changes in cell density as the chemoattractants are consumed. With time, an increase in AtzA expression (which correlates with cell density) results in atrazine clearing, leading to the formation of a dark ring. As the atrazine concentration falls, the pseudotactic response is diminished, which reduces cell motility and fixes the cells in place.


Using a combination of in vitro and in vivo selection techniques, we have created a synthetic riboswitch that activates protein translation in response to the herbicide atrazine. By using this riboswitch to control the translation of the CheZ protein in E. coli, we have generated cells that show dose-dependent increases in motility in the presence of atrazine. Using a combination of mutagenesis and in vitro structure probing, we have delineated important contributors to riboswitch function. Finally, we have shown that these reprogrammed E. coli can be further engineered to degrade atrazine by incorporating a catabolic gene from Pseudomonas sp. ADP.

This study highlights several principles that may impact synthetic riboswitch design and synthetic biology in general. The first is that a combination of in vitro and in vivo selection can be quite powerful for discovering new riboswitches. Until very recently, nearly all synthetic riboswitches have been created beginning with a single, high-affinity aptamer. Although this approach has been successful for a limited number of aptamers, it is not clear that it represents the optimal solution. While the thermodynamics of ligand binding certainly play a key role in how a riboswitch functions, tighter binding may not lead to better switches in all cases22. An aptamer that binds a ligand very tightly, but is unable to undergo a conformational change may not yield a functional riboswitch whereas an aptamer that binds a ligand less tightly, but rapidly changes conformation upon ligand binding does. At present, the molecular details that distinguish effective aptamers from ineffective aptamers remain murky at best, thus it is important to be able to survey many combinations of aptamers and expression platforms to develop effective riboswitches, as well as to elucidate the principles that define a successful aptamer. The combination of in vitro and in vivo selection presented here provides a rapid means to develop new synthetic riboswitches.

However, there are challenges that remain. For example, while the synthetic riboswitch recognizes atrazine with micromolar affinity in vitro, the in vivo response occurs at ligand concentrations that are approximately 250-fold higher. Such a differential would likely preclude the use of this particular system at all but the most contaminated sites. Nevertheless, one can imagine increasing the permeability of the cells by deleting genes that contribute to atrazine efflux. Alternatively, these riboswitches might be introduced into bacterial species that are naturally more permeable to atrazine. Additionally, in these experiments, we chose to select for switches with low background expression in the absence of the ligand. While this is a useful phenotype, it may not be ideal, as “leakier” switches may allow cells to explore their local environment better than cells that don’t move in the absence of the ligand. An alternative strategy could entail using a riboswitch to turn off expression of cheZ in the presence of atrazine, which would allow the cells to explore and subsequently congregate in regions where the ligand concentration was highest. As we and others15,18 have shown previously, “on” switches can often be reengineered as “off” switches and vice-versa.

In a broad sense, this study shows how cells can be programmed to perform multiple complex tasks, such as migrating in the presence of a novel compound and degrading it, while discriminating against the degradation product. Key to these efforts is the ability to identify selective aptamers and to convert them into synthetic riboswitches in a straightforward way. We anticipate that synthetic riboswitches that respond to new ligands will be generally useful in reprogramming cells to carry out complex tasks.


SELEX Experiments

The template DNA (5´-TTCTAATACGACTCACTATAGGGACAGGGCTAGC-N40-CTGCAGGTCGACGCATGCGCCG-3´) contained a 40 nt randomized region flanked by two primer binding sequences. The template also contained a T7 promoter (underlined nucleotides) to facilitate transcription. PCR amplification was used to generate the initial DNA pool. RNA pool was generated from this pool by an overnight transcription. After transcription, DNA templates were digested with DNase and the transcripts were gel purified. RNA was eluted from the gel, ethanol precipitated and redissolved in binding buffer (20 mM Tris-HCl, 5 mM MgCl2, 250 mM NaCl; pH 7.4).

To remove RNA transcripts that bind sepharose, the radiolabeled RNA pool (300 pmol) was then loaded on a column containing 250 µL of sepharose without atrazine and incubated for 30 min at room temperature. The column was rinsed with 600 µL of binding buffer, and the unbound RNAs were then loaded on a second column containing a 250 µL of atrazine-sepharose. The column was incubated at room temperature for 30 min and then washed with 1.2 mL of binding buffer. Bound transcripts were eluted with 1 mL of 5 mM of atrazine solution. Eluted RNA was ethanol precipitated, redissolved in water, reverse transcribed, and PCR amplified. One fifth of the amplification reaction was used as a template to transcribe RNA for subsequent in vitro selection cycles. For subsequent selection cycles, RNA was directly loaded on a column containing 250 µL of sepharose-atrazine. The selection conditions were as described above.

Aliquots of the solutions were recovered both before loading onto the atrazine-sepharose column and after the elution, and the radioactivity measured using a scintillation counter. These values were used to calculate percentage of RNA bound to the column.

Migration Experiments

A cassette containing aptamer pool (with N10 randomized region) was subcloned into the KpnI and HindIII sites of plasmid pSKD1248 containing the cheZ gene. Cell migration experiments plasmids were performed in E. coli JW1870 cells (ΔcheZ)47.

To perform migration experiment, selective media (tryptone broth with 0.25% agar, 50 µg/mL ampicillin, containing no atrazine) was prepared in Petri dishes (85 mm dia.). A diluted cell suspension from the mid-log-phase culture (3 µL, ~600,000 cells) was applied to the center of the plate, dried in air for 15 min, and incubated at 30 °C for 12 h. Non-motile cells (cells that remained at the center of the plate) were picked using a pipette, suspended in tryptone media containing 50 µg/mL ampicillin, and grown till mid-log-phase. Diluted cell suspensions (3 µL, ~600,000 cells) were applied once again to the center of a plate containing selective media and no atrazine. The plate was incubated for 12 h at 30 °C. Non-motile cells were picked and grown as described above. A diluted cell suspension (3 µL, ~600,000 cells) was applied to the center of a plate containing selective media supplemented with 500 µM atrazine. A control was set up where cells were applied to a plate of selective media containing no atrazine. Both plates were incubated at 30 °C for 12 h. Cells that migrated on the atrazine plate were picked, suspended in tryptone media, grown overnight at 37 °C and plasmids were isolated using a Qiagen miniprep kit.

In vivo β-Galactosidase Assay

Plasmids isolated from the motility screens were digested with KpnI and HindIII and subcloned into KpnI and HindIII sites of plasmid pSAL172 containing the lacZ gene. Library transformations were plated on large bioassay trays (241 mm × 241 mm; Nalgene) containing LB/agar (300 mL) supplemented with ampicillin (50 µg/mL). Cells were plated to achieve a final density of ~4,000 colonies/plate and were grown for 14 h at 37 °C.

Colonies from each plate were picked by using a Genetix QPix2 colony picking robot and were inoculated in a 96-well microtiter plate (Costar), which contained LB media (200 µL/well) supplemented with ampicillin (50 µg/mL). β-Galactosidase assay was conducted as described before11,13. The Miller units were calculated by using the following formula:

Miller Units=OD420/(OD600× hydrolysis time ×[volume of cell lysate/total volume])

Ratios of the Miller units for cultures grown in the presence or absence of atrazine represent an “activation ratio.” Only those candidates were considered that showed an activation ratio of ≥ 3.0 in two separate determinations. Clones that were identified as potential switches were subcultured and assayed as previously described13.

Analysis of RNA structures by in-line probing

RNA constructs were synthesized from the corresponding DNA template by in vitro transcription using T7 RNA polymerase, dephosphorylated, and 5’-end labeled with 32P (see Supplementary Method).

Approximately 2 nM 5´-32P-labeled RNA was incubated for ~40 h at 25 °C in 50 mM Tris-HCl (pH 8.3 at 25 °C), 20 mM MgCl2 and 100 mM KCl containing ligand concentration defined for each reaction. After incubation, the products were separated on a denaturing 12% polyacrylamide gel (29:1 acrylamide/bisacrylamide; 0.75 mm thick), visualized using a Molecular Dynamics Storm 860 Phosphorimager (GE Healthcare), and the bands were quantified using ImageQuant software (GE Healthcare). The data were corrected for lane loading by normalizing relative to the total radioactivity in each lane.

The fraction of RNA cleaved for each site was calculated assuming minimum cleavage in the absence of atrazine and maximum cleavage in the presence of the highest concentration of atrazine. The apparent dissociation constant (Kd) was determined by plotting fraction RNA cleaved versus the logarithm of the atrazine concentration. Assuming a single binding site model, the data were fit to the equation: f = [atrazine] /([atrazine]+ Kd) using Origin 8.0 (OriginLab, Northampton, MA). In this equation, Kd is the apparent dissociation constant, f is the fraction of cleaved RNA, and [atrazine] is the concentration of atrazine.

Supplementary Material


This research was supported by the NIH (GM070740 to J.P.G.), the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation, and the Herman Frasch Foundation of the American Chemical Society. J.P.G. is a Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar and an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellow. We thank Shana Topp for helpful discussions.


Author Contributions

J.P.G. conceived the research. J.S. performed the molecular and microbiology experiments; S.J.R. carried out the synthetic chemistry. J.S. and J.P.G. analyzed data and wrote the paper.

Competing Financial Interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.


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