A combination of structural approaches yields a complete atomic model of the highly biochemically characterized Escherichia coli RNA polymerase, enabling fuller exploitation of E. coli as a model for understanding transcription.
The Escherichia coli transcription system is the best characterized from a biochemical and genetic point of view and has served as a model system. Nevertheless, a molecular understanding of the details of E. coli transcription and its regulation, and therefore its full exploitation as a model system, has been hampered by the absence of high-resolution structural information on E. coli RNA polymerase (RNAP). We use a combination of approaches, including high-resolution X-ray crystallography, ab initio structural prediction, homology modeling, and single-particle cryo-electron microscopy, to generate complete atomic models of E. coli core RNAP and an E. coli RNAP ternary elongation complex. The detailed and comprehensive structural descriptions can be used to help interpret previous biochemical and genetic data in a new light and provide a structural framework for designing experiments to understand the function of the E. coli lineage-specific insertions and their role in the E. coli transcription program.
Transcription, or the synthesis of RNA from DNA, is one of the most important processes in the cell. The central enzyme of transcription is the DNA-dependent RNA polymerase (RNAP), a large, macromolecular assembly consisting of at least five subunits. Historically, much of our fundamental information on the process of transcription has come from genetic and biochemical studies of RNAP from the model bacterium Escherichia coli. More recently, major breakthroughs in our understanding of the mechanism of action of RNAP have come from high resolution crystal structures of various bacterial, archaebacterial, and eukaryotic enzymes. However, all of our high-resolution bacterial RNAP structures are of enzymes from the thermophiles Thermus aquaticus or T. thermophilus, organisms with poorly characterized transcription systems. It has thus far proven impossible to obtain a high-resolution structure of E. coli RNAP, which has made it difficult to relate the large collection of genetic and biochemical data on RNAP function directly to the available structural information. Here, we used a combination of approaches—high-resolution X-ray crystallography of E. coli RNAP fragments, ab initio structure prediction, homology modeling, and single-particle cryo-electron microscopy—to generate complete atomic models of E. coli RNAP. Our detailed and comprehensive structural models provide the heretofore missing structural framework for understanding the function of the highly characterized E. coli RNAP.