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RNA. 2013 Apr;19(4):561-73. doi: 10.1261/rna.038265.113. Epub 2013 Feb 20.

Conformational heterogeneity of the protein-free human spliceosomal U2-U6 snRNA complex.

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Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Hunter College of the City University of New York, New York, NY 10065, USA.


The complex formed between the U2 and U6 small nuclear (sn)RNA molecules of the eukaryotic spliceosome plays a critical role in the catalysis of precursor mRNA splicing. Here, we have used enzymatic structure probing, (19)F NMR, and analytical ultracentrifugation techniques to characterize the fold of a protein-free biophysically tractable paired construct representing the human U2-U6 snRNA complex. Results from enzymatic probing and (19)F NMR for the complex in the absence of Mg(2+) are consistent with formation of a four-helix junction structure as a predominant conformation. However, (19)F NMR data also identify a lesser fraction (up to 14% at 25°C) of a three-helix conformation. Based upon this distribution, the calculated ΔG for inter-conversion to the four-helix structure from the three-helix structure is approximately -4.6 kJ/mol. In the presence of 5 mM Mg(2+), the fraction of the three-helix conformation increased to ∼17% and the Stokes radius, measured by analytical ultracentrifugation, decreased by 2%, suggesting a slight shift to an alternative conformation. NMR measurements demonstrated that addition of an intron fragment to the U2-U6 snRNA complex results in displacement of U6 snRNA from the region of Helix III immediately 5' of the ACAGAGA sequence of U6 snRNA, which may facilitate binding of the segment of the intron adjacent to the 5' splice site to the ACAGAGA sequence. Taken together, these observations indicate conformational heterogeneity in the protein-free human U2-U6 snRNA complex consistent with a model in which the RNA has sufficient conformational flexibility to facilitate inter-conversion between steps of splicing in situ.

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