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RNA molecules are versatile biomaterials that act not only as DNA-like genetic materials but also have diverse functions in regulation of cellular biosystems. RNA is capable of regulating gene expression by sequence-specific hybridization. This feature allows the design of RNA-based artificial gene regulators (riboregulators). RNA can also build complex two-dimensional (2D) and 3D nanostructures, which afford protein-like functions and make RNA an attractive material for nanobiotechnology. RNA tectonics is a methodology in RNA nanobiotechnology for the design and construction of RNA nanostructures/nanoobjects through controlled self-assembly of modular RNA units (tectoRNAs). RNA nanostructures designed according to the concept of RNA tectonics are also attractive as tools in synthetic biology, but in vivo RNA tectonics is still in the early stages. This review presents a summary of the achievements of RNA tectonics and its related researches in vitro, and also introduces recent developments that facilitated the use of RNA nanostructures in bacterial cells. WIREs RNA 2013, 4:651–664. doi: 10.1002/wrna.1185

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Conflict of interest: The authors have declared no conflicts of interest for this article.