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PLoS One. 2014 Apr 1;9(4):e93664. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0093664. eCollection 2014.

Helix capping in RNA structure.

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BioMolecular Engineering Program, Physics and Chemistry Department, Milwaukee School of Engineering, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, United States of America.
Center for Computational Biology and Bioinformatics, Institute for Cellular and Molecular Biology, and Section of Integrative Biology, the University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas, United States of America.


Helices are an essential element in defining the three-dimensional architecture of structured RNAs. While internal basepairs in a canonical helix stack on both sides, the ends of the helix stack on only one side and are exposed to the loop side, thus susceptible to fraying unless they are protected. While coaxial stacking has long been known to stabilize helix ends by directly stacking two canonical helices coaxially, based on analysis of helix-loop junctions in RNA crystal structures, herein we describe helix capping, topological stacking of a helix end with a basepair or an unpaired nucleotide from the loop side, which in turn protects helix ends. Beyond the topological protection of helix ends against fraying, helix capping should confer greater stability onto the resulting composite helices. Our analysis also reveals that this general motif is associated with the formation of tertiary structure interactions. Greater knowledge about the dynamics at the helix-junctions in the secondary structure should enhance the prediction of RNA secondary structure with a richer set of energetic rules and help better understand the folding of a secondary structure into its three-dimensional structure. These together suggest that helix capping likely play a fundamental role in driving RNA folding.

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