In many Gram-negative and some Gram-positive bacteria, small regulatory RNAs (sRNAs) that bind the RNA chaperone Hfq have a pivotal role in modulating virulence, stress responses, metabolism and biofilm formation. These sRNAs recognize transcripts through base-pairing, and sRNA-mRNA annealing consequently alters the translation and/or stability of transcripts leading to changes in gene expression. We have previously found that the highly conserved 3'-to-5' exoribonuclease polynucleotide phosphorylase (PNPase) has an indispensable role in paradoxically stabilizing Hfq-bound sRNAs and promoting their function in gene regulation in Escherichia coli. Here, we report that PNPase contributes to the degradation of specific short mRNA fragments, the majority of which bind Hfq and are derived from targets of sRNAs. Specifically, we found that these mRNA-derived fragments accumulate in the absence of PNPase or its exoribonuclease activity and interact with PNPase. Additionally, we show that mutations in hfq or in the seed pairing region of some sRNAs eliminated the requirement of PNPase for their stability. Altogether, our results are consistent with a model that PNPase degrades mRNA-derived fragments that could otherwise deplete cells of Hfq-binding sRNAs through pairing-mediated decay.
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