We present a molecular dissection of pause site-dependent transcriptional termination for mammalian RNA polymerase II (Pol II)-transcribed genes. We show that nascent transcripts form RNA/DNA hybrid structures (R-loops) behind elongating Pol II and are especially prevalent over G-rich pause sites positioned downstream of gene poly(A) signals. Senataxin, a helicase protein associated with AOA2/ALS4 neurodegenerative disorders, acts to resolve these R-loop structures and by so doing allows access of the 5 ′–3 ′ exonuclease Xrn2 at 3 ′ cleavage poly(A) sites. This affords 3 ′ transcript degradation and consequent Pol II termination. In effect, R-loops formed over G-rich pause sites, followed by their resolution by senataxin, are key steps in the termination process.
► Senataxin is required for pause-dependent Pol II termination in human genes ► R-loops accumulate over G-rich pause regions and are required for termination ► R-loops dependent on transcription, functional poly(A) signal, and pause elements ► Senataxin resolves R-loops to allow Xrn2 to mediate Pol II release from the gene