In cells, RNA polymerase (RNAP) must transcribe supercoiled DNA, whose torsional state is constantly changing, but how RNAP deals with DNA supercoiling remains elusive. We report direct measurements of individual Escherichia coli RNAPs as they transcribed supercoiled DNA. We found that a resisting torque slowed RNAP and increased its pause frequency and duration. RNAP was able to generate 11 T 4 piconewton-nanometers (mean T standard deviation) of torque before stalling, an amount sufficient to melt DNA of arbitrary sequence and establish RNAP as a more potent torsional motor than previously known. A stalled RNAP was able to resume transcription upon torque relaxation, and transcribing RNAP was resilient to transient torque fluctuations. These results provide a quantitative framework for understanding how dynamic modification of DNA supercoiling regulates transcription.
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