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RNA. 1996 Apr; 2(4): 367–379.
PMCID: PMC1369379

A novel RNA structural motif in the selenocysteine insertion element of eukaryotic selenoprotein mRNAs.


In eukaryotes, co-translational insertion of selenocysteine into selenoproteins necessitates the participation of the selenocysteine insertion sequence (SECIS), an element lying in the 3'-untranslated region of selenoprotein mRNAs. We report a detailed experimental study of the secondary structures of the SECIS elements of three selenoprotein mRNAs, the rat and human type I iodothyronine deiodinase (5'DI) and rat glutathione peroxidase (GPx). Based on RNase and chemical probing, a new secondary structure model is established. It is characterized by a stem-loop structure, comprising two helices (I and II) separated by an internal loop, with an apical loop surmounting helix II. Sequence comparisons of 20 SECIS elements, arising from 2 5'DI, 13 GPx, 2 selenoprotein P, and 1 selenoprotein W mRNAs, confirm the secondary structure model. The most striking finding of the experimental study concerns a set of conserved sequences in helix II that interact to form a novel RNA structural motif consisting of a quartet composed of non-Watson-Crick base pairs 5'UGAY3': 5'UGAU3'. The potential for forming the quartet is preserved in 15 SECIS elements, but three consecutive non-Watson-Crick base pairs can nevertheless form in the other five SECIS, the central G.A tandem being invariant in all cases. A 3D model, derived by computer modeling with the use of the solution data, suggests that the base pairing interactions in the G.A tandem are of the type found in GNRA loops. The 3D model displays the quartet lying in an accessible position at the foot of helix II, which is bent at the internal loop, suggesting that the non-Watson-Crick base pair arrangement provides an unusual pattern of chemical groups for putative ligand interaction.

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