Conversion of tRNA precursors to their mature forms requires the action of both endo- and exoribonucleases. Although studies over many years identified the endoribonuclease, RNase P, and several exoribonucleases as the enzymes responsible for generating the mature 5′ and 3′ termini, respectively, of Escherichia coli tRNAs, relatively little is known about how tRNAs are separated from long multimeric or multifunction transcripts, or from long leader and trailer sequences. To examine this question, the tRNA products that accumulate in mutant strains devoid of multiple exoribonucleases plus one or several endoribonucleases were analyzed by northern analysis. We find that the multifunction tyrT transcript, which contains two tRNA1Tyr sequences separated by a 209-nt spacer region plus a downstream mRNA, is cleaved at three sites in the spacer region by the endoribonuclease, RNase E. When both RNase E and RNase P are absent, a product containing both tRNAs accumulates. Two multimeric tRNA transcripts, those for tRNA Arg-His-Leu-Pro and tRNA Gly-Cys-Leu also require RNase E for maturation. For the former transcript, products with long 3′ extensions on tRNAArg, tRNAHis, and tRNAPro, as well as the primary transcript, accumulate in the absence of RNase E. For the latter transcript, RNase E cleaves downstream of each tRNA. Little processing of either multimeric transcript occurs in the absence of both RNase E and RNase P. These data indicate that RNase E is a major contributor to the initial processing of E. coli tRNA transcripts, providing substrates for final maturation by RNase P and the 3′ exoribonucleases. Based on this new information, a detailed model for tRNA maturation is proposed.
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