Many RNA molecules possess complicated secondary structure critical to their function. Mutations in double-helical regions of RNA may disrupt Watson-Crick (WC) interactions causing structure destabilization or even complete loss of function. Such disruption can be compensated by another mutation restoring base pairing, as has been shown for mRNA, rRNA and tRNA. Here, we investigate the evolution of intrinsic transcription terminators between closely related strains of Bacillus cereus. While the terminator structure is maintained by strong natural selection, as evidenced by the low frequency of disrupting mutations, we observe multiple instances of pairs of disrupting-compensating mutations in RNA structure stems. Such two-step switches between different WC pairs occur very fast, consistent with the low fitness conferred by the intermediate non-WC variant. Still, they are not instantaneous, and probably involve transient fixation of the intermediate variant. The GU wobble pair is the most frequent intermediate, and remains fixed longer than other intermediates, consistent with its less disruptive effect on the RNA structure. Double switches involving non-GU intermediates are more frequent at the ends of RNA stems, probably because they are associated with smaller fitness loss. Together, these results show that the fitness landscape of bacterial transcription terminators is rather rugged, but that the fitness valleys associated with unpaired stem nucleotides are rather shallow, facilitating evolution.
- Compensatory evolution
- GU wobble pair
- Intrinsic transcription terminators