In vitro reconstitution studies have shown that ribosome assembly is highly cooperative and starts with the binding of a few ribosomal (r-) proteins to rRNA. It is unknown how these early binders act. Focusing on the initial stage of the assembly of the large subunit of the Escherichia coli ribosome, we prepared a 79-nucleotide-long region of 23S rRNA encompassing the binding sites of the early binders uL4 and uL24. Force signals were measured in a DNA/RNA dumbbell configuration with a double optical tweezers setup. The rRNA fragment was stretched until unfolded, in the absence or in the presence of the r-proteins (either uL4, uL24, or both). We show that the r-proteins uL4 and uL24 individually stabilize the rRNA fragment, both acting as molecular clamps. Interestingly, this mechanical stabilization is enhanced when both proteins are bound simultaneously. Independently, we observe a cooperative binding of uL4 and uL24 to the rRNA fragment. These two aspects of r-proteins binding both contribute to the efficient stabilization of the 3D structure of the rRNA fragment under investigation. We finally consider implications of our results for large ribosomal subunit assembly.
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