Folding and ligand recognition of the TPP riboswitch aptamer at single-molecule resolution
Thiamine pyrophosphate (TPP)-sensitive mRNA domains are the most prevalent riboswitches known. Despite intensive investigation, the complex ligand recognition and concomitant folding processes in the TPP riboswitch that culminate in the regulation of gene expression remain elusive. Here, we used single-molecule fluorescence resonance energy transfer imaging to probe the folding landscape of the TPP aptamer domain in the absence and presence of magnesium and TPP. To do so, distinct labeling patterns were used to sense the dynamics of the switch helix (P1) and the two sensor arms (P2/P3 and P4/P5) of the aptamer domain. The latter structural elements make interdomain tertiary contacts (L5/P3) that span a region immediately adjacent to the ligand-binding site. In each instance, conformational dynamics of the TPP riboswitch were influenced by ligand binding. The P1 switch helix, formed by the 5' and 3' ends of the aptamer domain, adopts a predominantly folded structure in the presence of Mg(2+) alone. However, even at saturating concentrations of Mg(2+) and TPP, the P1 helix, as well as distal regions surrounding the TPP-binding site, exhibit an unexpected degree of residual dynamics and disperse kinetic behaviors. Such plasticity results in a persistent exchange of the P3/P5 forearms between open and closed configurations that is likely to facilitate entry and exit of the TPP ligand. Correspondingly, we posit that such features of the TPP aptamer domain contribute directly to the mechanism of riboswitch-mediated translational regulation.