RNA acts not only as an information bearer in the biogenesis of proteins from genes, but also as a regulator that participates in the control of gene expression. In bacteria, small RNA molecules (sRNAs) play controlling roles in numerous processes and help to orchestrate complex regulatory networks. Such processes include cell growth and development, response to stress and metabolic change, transcription termination, cell-to-cell communication, and the launching of programmes for host invasion. All these processes require recognition of target messenger RNAs by the sRNAs. This review summarizes recent results that have provided insights into how bacterial sRNAs are recruited into effector ribonucleoprotein complexes that can seek out and act upon target transcripts. The results hint at how sRNAs and their protein partners act as pattern-matching search engines that efficaciously regulate gene expression, by performing with specificity and speed while avoiding off-target effects. The requirements for efficient searches of RNA patterns appear to be common to all domains of life.

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