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J Am Chem Soc. 2011 Jun 15;133(23):8934-41. doi: 10.1021/ja200173a. Epub 2011 May 24.

Catalytic mechanism of RNA backbone cleavage by ribonuclease H from quantum mechanics/molecular mechanics simulations.

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Laboratory of Chemical Physics, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland 20892, USA.


We use quantum mechanics/molecular mechanics simulations to study the cleavage of the ribonucleic acid (RNA) backbone catalyzed by ribonuclease H. This protein is a prototypical member of a large family of enzymes that use two-metal catalysis to process nucleic acids. By combining Hamiltonian replica exchange with a finite-temperature string method, we calculate the free energy surface underlying the RNA-cleavage reaction and characterize its mechanism. We find that the reaction proceeds in two steps. In a first step, catalyzed primarily by magnesium ion A and its ligands, a water molecule attacks the scissile phosphate. Consistent with thiol-substitution experiments, a water proton is transferred to the downstream phosphate group. The transient phosphorane formed as a result of this nucleophilic attack decays by breaking the bond between the phosphate and the ribose oxygen. In the resulting intermediate, the dissociated but unprotonated leaving group forms an alkoxide coordinated to magnesium ion B. In a second step, the reaction is completed by protonation of the leaving group, with a neutral Asp132 as a likely proton donor. The overall reaction barrier of ∼15 kcal mol(-1), encountered in the first step, together with the cost of protonating Asp132, is consistent with the slow measured rate of ∼1-100/min. The two-step mechanism is also consistent with the bell-shaped pH dependence of the reaction rate. The nonmonotonic relative motion of the magnesium ions along the reaction pathway agrees with X-ray crystal structures. Proton-transfer reactions and changes in the metal ion coordination emerge as central factors in the RNA-cleavage reaction.

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