Programmed ribosomal frameshifting is often used by viral pathogens including HIV. Slippery sequences present in some mRNAs cause the ribosome to shift reading frame. The resulting protein is thus encoded by one reading frame upstream from the slippery sequence and by another reading frame downstream from the slippery sequence. Although the mechanism is not well understood, frameshifting is known to be stimulated by an mRNA structure such as a pseudoknot. Here, we show that the efficiency of frameshifting relates to the mechanical strength of the pseudoknot. Two pseudoknots derived from the Infectious Bronchitis Virus were used, differing by one base pair in the first stem. In Escherichia coli, these two pseudoknots caused frameshifting frequencies that differed by a factor of two. We used optical tweezers to unfold the pseudoknots. The pseudoknot giving rise to the highest degree of frameshifting required a nearly 2-fold larger unfolding force than the other. The observed energy difference cannot be accounted for by any existing model. We propose that the degree of ribosomal frameshifting is related to the mechanical strength of RNA pseudoknots. Our observations support the "9 A model" that predicts some physical barrier is needed to force the ribosome into the -1 frame. Also, our findings support the recent observation made by cryoelectron microscopy that mechanical interaction between a ribosome and a pseudoknot causes a deformation of the A-site tRNA. The result has implications for the understanding of genetic regulation, reading frame maintenance, tRNA movement, and unwinding of mRNA secondary structures by ribosomes.
Keywords: Base Sequence; Biomechanics; Computer Simulation; Escherichia coli; Frameshift Mutation; Frameshifting, Ribosomal; Models, Biological; Molecular Sequence Data; Nucleic Acid Conformation; Optical Tweezers; Plasmids; Protein Biosynthesis; RNA, Messenger; RNA, Viral; Ribosomes; Thermodynamics