Recent discoveries of noncoding regulatory RNAs have led to further understanding of the elements controlling genetic expression. In E. coli, most of those ncRNAs for which functional knowledge is available were shown to be dependent on the Hfq RNA chaperone and to act as inhibitors of translation by base pairing with their mRNA target. Nevertheless, there are also some examples where the sRNA plays a role of a translational activator, structurally enhancing ribosome binding to mRNA. In this work, we seek to understand the dynamics of DsrA-based positive regulation of rpoS mRNA, encoding the σ(S) RNA polymerase subunit, and to understand how it helps to mitigate environmental stress in bacteria. Our analysis is based on the first absolute quantification of the copy number of both the sRNA and of its corresponding mRNA in combination with mathematical models for post-transcriptional regulation. We show that on average, DsrA is present at a ratio of 3 to 24 copies per cell, while an rpoS transcript is present at a level of 1 to 4 copies per cell, both levels increasing when temperature is decreased. Our analysis supports the idea that temperature dependency of DsrA degradation is not a crucial condition for the attainment of observed DsrA steady levels, but highlights that this may have a marked influence on the dynamics of the regulation, notably to speed up the time of recovery to normal RNA levels after ending the stress signal. Further, our analysis also reveals how reversibility of RNA complex formation and σ(S)-regulated degradation act to reduce intrinsic noise in σ(S) induction. Taking into account the importance of this master regulator, which allows E. coli as well as other important pathogens to survive their environment, the present work contributes to complete the panel of multiple signals used to regulate bacterial transcription.
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