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Q Rev Biophys. 2000 May;33(2):109-59.

Structures of helical junctions in nucleic acids.

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CRC Nucleic Acid Structure Research Group, Department of Biochemistry, University of Dundee, Dundee DD1 4HN, UK.


Our knowledge of the architectural principles of nucleic acid junctions has seen significant recent advances. The conformation of DNA junctions is now well understood, and this provides a new basis for the analysis of important structural elements in RNA. The most significant new data have come from X-ray crystallography of four-way DNA junctions; incidentally showing the great importance of serendipity in science, since none of the three groups had deliberately set out to crystallise a junction. Fortunately the results confirm, and of course extend, the earlier conformational studies of DNA junctions in almost every detail. This is important, because it means that these methods can be applied with greater confidence to new systems, especially in RNA. Methods like FRET, chemical probing and even the humble polyacrylamide gel can be rapid and very powerful, allowing the examination of a large number of sequence variants relatively quickly. Molecular modelling in conjunction with experiments is also a very important component of the general approach. Ultimately crystallography provides the gold standard for structural analysis, but the other, simple approaches have considerable value along the way. At the beginning of this review I suggested two simple folding principles for branched nucleic acids, and it is instructive to review these in the light of recent data. In brief, these were the tendency for pairwise coaxial stacking of helical arms, and the importance of metal ion interactions in the induction of folding. We see that both are important in a wide range of systems, both in DNA and RNA. The premier example is the four-way DNA junction, which undergoes metal ion-induced folding into the stacked X-structure that is based on coaxial stacking of arms. As in many systems, there are two alternative ways to achieve this depending on the choice of stacking partners. Recent data reveal that both forms often exist in a dynamic equilibrium, and that the relative stability of the two conformers depends upon base sequence extending a significant distance from the junction. The three-way junction has provided a good test of the folding principles. Perfect three-way (3H) DNA junctions seem to defy these principles in that they appear reluctant to undergo coaxial stacking of arms, and exhibit little change in conformation with addition of metal ions. Modelling suggests that such a junction is stereochemically constrained in an extended conformation. However, upon inclusion of a few additional base pairs at the centre (to create a 3HS2 junction for example) the additional stereochemical flexibility allows two arms to undergo coaxial stacking. Such a junction exhibits all the properties consistent with the general folding principles, with ion-induced folding into a form based on pairwise coaxial stacking of arms in one of two different conformers. The three-way junction is therefore very much the exception that proves the rule. It is instructive to compare the folding of corresponding species in DNA and RNA, where we find both similarities and differences. The RNA four-way junction can adopt a structure that is globally similar to the stacked X-structure (Duckett et al. 1995a), and the crystal structure of the DNAzyme shows that the stacked X-conformation can include one helical pair in the A-conformation (Nowakowski et al. 1999). However, modelling suggests that the juxtaposition of strands and grooves will be less satisfactory in RNA, and the higher magnesium ion concentration required to fold the RNA junction indicates a lower stability of the antiparallel form. Perhaps the biggest difference between the properties of the DNA and RNA four-way junctions is the lack of an unstacked structure at low salt concentrations for the RNA species. This clearly reflects a major difference in the electrostatic interactions in the RNA junction. In general the folding of branched DNA provides some good indications on the likely folding of the corresponding RNA species, but caution is required in making the extrapolation because the two polymers are significantly different. A number of studies point to the flexibility and malleability of branched nucleic acids, and this turns out to have particular significance in their interactions with proteins. Proteins such as the DNA junction-resolving enzymes exhibit considerable selectivity for the structure of their substrates, which is still not understood at a molecular level. Despite this, it appears to be universally true that these proteins distort the global, and in some cases at least the local, structure of the junctions. The somewhat perplexing result is that the proteins appear to distort the very property that they recognise. In general it seems that four-way DNA junctions are opened to one extent or another by interaction with proteins. (ABSTRACT TRUNCATED).

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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