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Biophys J. 2005 Apr;88(4):2516-24. Epub 2005 Jan 28.

Does water play a structural role in the folding of small nucleic acids?

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Department of Chemistry, Stanford University, Stanford, California 94305-3080, USA.


Nucleic acid structure and dynamics are known to be closely coupled to local environmental conditions and, in particular, to the ionic character of the solvent. Here we consider what role the discrete properties of water and ions play in the collapse and folding of small nucleic acids. We study the folding of an experimentally well-characterized RNA hairpin-loop motif (sequence 5'-GGGC[GCAA]GCCU-3') via ensemble molecular dynamics simulation and, with nearly 500 micros of aggregate simulation time using an explicit representation of the ionic solvent, report successful ensemble folding simulations with a predicted folding time of 8.8(+/-2.0) micros, in agreement with experimental measurements of approximately 10 micros. Comparing our results to previous folding simulations using the GB/SA continuum solvent model shows that accounting for water-mediated interactions is necessary to accurately characterize the free energy surface and stochastic nature of folding. The formation of the secondary structure appears to be more rapid than the fastest ionic degrees of freedom, and counterions do not participate discretely in observed folding events. We find that hydrophobic collapse follows a predominantly expulsive mechanism in which a diffusion-search of early structural compaction is followed by the final formation of native structure that occurs in tandem with solvent evacuation.

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