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Publication Date



UM campus only

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PHD)


Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (Medicine)

Date of Defense


First Committee Member

Richard S. Myers

Second Committee Member

Roger E. Fenna

Third Committee Member

Daniel J. Liebl

Fourth Committee Member

Arun Malhotra

Fifth Committee Member

Thomas Hollis


RNA metabolism includes all the processes required for RNA synthesis, maturation, and degradation in living cells. Ribonucleases (RNases) are involved in RNA maturation and degradation, two essential processes in gene expression and regulation in both prokaryotes and eukaryotes. Oligoribonuclease (Orn) has an important role in eliminating small oligonucleotides (nano-RNA), the last step in mRNA degradation. In E. coli, Orn is the only essential exoribonuclease. The enzyme has been shown to form a stable dimer, both in solution and in the crystalline form. Analysis of the three-dimensional structure of Orn allowed us to hypothesize that dimerization is essential for enzyme catalysis. In order to test the hypothesis, I analyzed a number of deletion and point mutants of Orn and determined that tryptophan 143 is essential for dimerization. A W143A mutant is unable to dimerize and has very little activity, similar to that of an active site mutant (D162A). The atomic structure of the W143A mutant, solved at a resolution of 1.9 Å, showed that although the overall three-dimensional fold is similar to that of the wild-type protein, minor differences exist that could account for the monomeric behavior in solution. A flexible Arg174 is repositioned into the cavity created by the missing Trp143. In this new orientation Arg174 protrudes into a hydrophobic pocket in the dimerization interface and is proposed to produce sufficient unfavorable interactions to keep the monomers apart in solution. All these data suggest that dimerization of Orn is essential for its activity. The human homolog of Orn, also known as small fragment nuclease (Sfn), has been shown to degrade short single-stranded RNA, the last step in mRNA decay. In order to determine the mechanism of action of Sfn and its role in the cell, we solved the crystal structure of a truncated form of Sfn at a resolution of 2.6 Å. This mutant form of Sfn lacks the C-terminal 21 amino acids (Sfn-∆C21) yet is as efficient as full length Sfn on model substrates. Interestingly, Sfn is not as active as E. coli Orn in in vitro assays. Analysis of the atomic structure revealed that the active site cleft in Sfn is narrower than the corresponding active site in E. coli. We propose a model for how this narrower cleft may explain the lower in vitro activity. Bacillus subtilis does not have an Orn homolog and until recently, the enzyme responsible for nano-RNA degradation in this organism was unknown. YtqI (also termed nrnA or nanoRNase), a protein unrelated to E. coli Orn, was recently shown to be responsible for the digestion of oligonucleotides in B. subtilis. In order to better understand the mechanism of action of YtqI, I solved its crystal structure at a resolution of 2.0 Å. The nuclease has a RecJ-like fold with two globular domains connected via a flexible linker that forms a central groove. On one side of the groove, the larger N-terminal domain harbors the putative active site, while on the opposite side, the C-terminal domain includes a putative RNA binding domain. The structure of YtqI provides insights into how this enzyme binds and digests oligoribonucleotides. The studies described here provide a better understanding of the mechanism of action for several exoribonucleases that act on nano-RNA oligonucleotides - Oligoribonuclease from E. coli, its close homolog in humans (Small fragment nuclease), as well as a functional homolog in Bacillus (YtqI). This work is relevant to understanding RNA metabolism, which is an essential process for survival of both eukaryotic and prokaryotic organisms.


X-ray Crystallography; RNA Degradation; Site Directed Mutagenesis; Enzyme Kinetics