Mechanistic characterization of the 5′-triphosphate-dependent activation of PKR: Lack of 5′-end nucleobase specificity, evidence for a distinct triphosphate binding site, and a critical role for the dsRBD

Rebecca Toroney, Chelsea M. Hull, Joshua E. Sokoloski, Philip C. Bevilacqua

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The protein kinase PKR is activated by RNA to phosphorylate eIF-2α, inhibiting translation initiation. Long dsRNA activates PKR via interactions with the dsRNA-binding domain (dsRBD). Weakly structured RNA also activates PKR and does so in a 5′-triphosphate (ppp) - dependent fashion, however relatively little is known about this pathway. We used a mutant T7 RNA polymerase to incorporate all four triphosphate-containing nucleotides into the first position of a largely single-stranded RNA and found absence of selectivity, in that all four transcripts activate PKR. Recognition of 5′-triphosphate, but not the nucleobase at the 5′-most position, makes this RNA-mediated innate immune response sensitive to a broad array of viruses. PKR was neither activated in the presence of γ-GTP nor recognized NTPs other than ATP in activation competition and ITC binding assays. This indicates that the binding site for ATP is selective, which contrasts with the site for the 5′ end of ppp-ssRNA. Activation experiments reveal that short dsRNAs compete with 5′-triphosphate RNAs and heparin for activation, and likewise gel-shift assays reveal that activating 5′-triphosphate RNAs and heparin compete with short dsRNAs for binding to PKR's dsRBD. The dsRBD thus plays a critical role in the activation of PKR by ppp-ssRNA and even heparin. At the same time, cross-linking experiments indicate that ppp-ssRNA interacts with PKR outside of the dsRBD as well. Overall, 5′-triphosphate-containing, weakly structured RNAs activate PKR via interactions with both the dsRBD and a distinct triphosphate binding site that lacks 5′-nucleobase specificity, allowing the innate immune response to provide broad-spectrum protection from pathogens.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1862-1874
Number of pages13
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 1 2012


All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Molecular Biology

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