Bacterial antisense RNAs are mainly the product of transcriptional noise
ABSTRACT: Cis-encoded antisense RNAs (asRNAs) are widespread along bacterial transcriptomes. However, the role of the vast majority of these RNAs remains unknown, and there is an ongoing discussion as to what extent these transcripts are the result of transcriptional noise. We show, by comparative transcriptomics of 20 bacterial species and one chloroplast, that the number of asRNAs is exponentially dependent on the genomic AT content, and that expression of asRNA at low levels exerts little impact in terms of energy consumption. A transcription model simulating mRNA and asRNA production indicates that the asRNA regulatory effect is only observed above certain expression thresholds, substantially higher than physiological transcript levels. These predictions were verified experimentally by overexpressing 9 different asRNAs in M. pneumoniae. Our results suggest that most of the antisense transcripts found in bacteria are the consequence of transcriptional noise, arising at spurious promoters throughout the genome.