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J Mol Biol. 2006 Oct 20;363(2):531-44. Epub 2006 Aug 15.

The paradoxical behavior of a highly structured misfolded intermediate in RNA folding.

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Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Institute for Cellular and Molecular Biology, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX 78712, USA.


Like many structured RNAs, the Tetrahymena group I ribozyme is prone to misfolding. Here we probe a long-lived misfolded species, referred to as M, and uncover paradoxical aspects of its structure and folding. Previous work indicated that a non-native local secondary structure, termed alt P3, led to formation of M during folding in vitro. Surprisingly, hydroxyl radical footprinting, fluorescence measurements with site-specifically incorporated 2-aminopurine, and functional assays indicate that the native P3, not alt P3, is present in the M state. The paradoxical behavior of alt P3 presumably arises because alt P3 biases folding toward M, but, after commitment to this folding pathway and before formation of M, alt P3 is replaced by P3. Further, structural and functional probes demonstrate that the misfolded ribozyme contains extensive native structure, with only local differences between the two states, and the misfolded structure even possesses partial catalytic activity. Despite the similarity of these structures, re-folding of M to the native state is very slow and is strongly accelerated by urea, Na+, and increased temperature and strongly impeded by Mg2+ and the presence of native peripheral contacts. The paradoxical observations of extensive native structure within the misfolded species but slow conversion of this species to the native state are readily reconciled by a model in which the misfolded state is a topological isomer of the native state, and computational results support the feasibility of this model. We speculate that the complex topology of RNA secondary structures and the inherent rigidity of RNA helices render kinetic traps due to topological isomers considerably more common for RNA than for proteins.

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