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J Mol Biol. 1999 Oct 22;293(2):271-81.

How RNA folds.

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Department of Chemistry, University of California Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720-1460, USA.


We describe the RNA folding problem and contrast it with the much more difficult protein folding problem. RNA has four similar monomer units, whereas proteins have 20 very different residues. The folding of RNA is hierarchical in that secondary structure is much more stable than tertiary folding. In RNA the two levels of folding (secondary and tertiary) can be experimentally separated by the presence or absence of Mg2+. Secondary structure can be predicted successfully from experimental thermodynamic data on secondary structure elements: helices, loops, and bulges. Tertiary interactions can then be added without much distortion of the secondary structure. These observations suggest a folding algorithm to predict the structure of an RNA from its sequence. However, to solve the RNA folding problem one needs thermodynamic data on tertiary structure interactions, and identification and characterization of metal-ion binding sites. These data, together with force versus extension measurements on single RNA molecules, should provide the information necessary to test and refine the proposed algorithm.

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