Recently, hammerhead ribozyme (HHR) motifs have been utilized as powerful tools for gene regulation. Here we present a novel design of expanded full-length HHRs that allows attaching additional functionalities to the ribozyme. These features allowed us to construct a very efficient artificial riboswitch in bacteria. Following the design of naturally occurring three-way junctions we attached an additional helix (IV) to stem I of the HHR while maintaining very fast cleavage rates. We found that the cleavage activity strongly depends on the exact design of the junction site. Incorporation of the novel ribozyme scaffold into a bacterial mRNA allowed the control of gene expression mediated by autocatalytic cleavage of the ribozyme. Appending an aptamer to the newly introduced stem enabled the identification of very powerful theophylline-inducible RNA switches by in vivo screening. Further investigations revealed a cascading system operating beyond the ribozyme-dependent mechanism. In conclusion, we extended the hammerhead toolbox for synthetic biology applications by providing an additional position for the attachment of regulatory modules for in vivo control of gene expression
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