Tertiary interactions determine the accuracy of RNA folding

Seema Chauhan, Sarah A. Woodson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

71 Scopus citations


RNAs must fold into unique three-dimensional structures to function in the cell, but how each polynucleotide finds its native structure is not understood. To investigate whether the stability of the tertiary structure determines the speed and accuracy of RNA folding, docking of a tetraloop with its receptor in a bacterial group I ribozyme was perturbed by site-directed mutagenesis. Disruption of the tetraloop or its receptor destabilizes tertiary interactions throughout the ribozyme by 2-3 kcal/mol, demonstrating that tertiary interactions form cooperatively in the transition from a native-like intermediate to the native state. Nondenaturing PAGE and RNase T1 digestion showed that base pairs form less homogeneously in the mutant RNAs during the transition from the unfolded state to the intermediate. Thus, tertiary interactions between helices bias the ensemble of secondary structures toward native-like conformations. Time-resolved hydroxyl radical footprinting showed that the wild-type ribozyme folds completely within 5-20 ms. By contrast, only 40-60% of a tetraloop mutant ribozyme folds in 30-40 ms, with the remainder folding in 30-200 s via nonnative intermediates. Therefore, destabilization of tetraloop-receptor docking introduces an alternate folding pathway in the otherwise smooth energy landscape of the wild-type ribozyme. Our results show that stable tertiary structure increases the flux through folding pathways that lead directly and rapidly to the native structure.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1296-1303
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of the American Chemical Society
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jan 30 2008
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Catalysis
  • General Chemistry
  • Biochemistry
  • Colloid and Surface Chemistry


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