RNA aptamers and RNA aptamer-based devices can be genetically encoded and expressed in cells to probe and manipulate cellular function. However, their usefulness in the mammalian cell is limited by low expression and rapid degradation. Here we describe the Tornado (Twister-optimized RNA for durable overexpression) expression system for achieving rapid RNA circularization, resulting in RNA aptamers with high stability and expression levels. Tornado-expressed transcripts contain an RNA of interest flanked by Twister ribozymes. The ribozymes rapidly undergo autocatalytic cleavage, leaving termini that are ligated by the ubiquitous endogenous RNA ligase RtcB. Using this approach, protein-binding aptamers that otherwise have minimal effects in cells become potent inhibitors of cellular signaling. Additionally, an RNA-based fluorescent metabolite biosensor for S-adenosyl methionine (SAM) that is expressed at low levels when expressed as a linear RNA achieves levels sufficient for detection of intracellular SAM dynamics when expressed as a circular RNA. The Tornado expression system thus markedly enhances the utility of RNA-based approaches in the mammalian cell.



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