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Nucleic Acids Res. 2014 Oct;42(18):11792-804. doi: 10.1093/nar/gku807. Epub 2014 Sep 12.

Topological constraints are major determinants of tRNA tertiary structure and dynamics and provide basis for tertiary folding cooperativity.

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Department of Biophysics, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109, USA.
Department of Biophysics, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109, USA Department of Chemistry, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109, USA
Department of Biochemistry and Chemistry, Duke University School of Medicine, Durham, NC 27710, USA


Recent studies have shown that basic steric and connectivity constraints encoded at the secondary structure level are key determinants of 3D structure and dynamics in simple two-way RNA junctions. However, the role of these topological constraints in higher order RNA junctions remains poorly understood. Here, we use a specialized coarse-grained molecular dynamics model to directly probe the thermodynamic contributions of topological constraints in defining the 3D architecture and dynamics of transfer RNA (tRNA). Topological constraints alone restrict tRNA's allowed conformational space by over an order of magnitude and strongly discriminate against formation of non-native tertiary contacts, providing a sequence independent source of folding specificity. Topological constraints also give rise to long-range correlations between the relative orientation of tRNA's helices, which in turn provides a mechanism for encoding thermodynamic cooperativity between distinct tertiary interactions. These aspects of topological constraints make it such that only several tertiary interactions are needed to confine tRNA to its native global structure and specify functionally important 3D dynamics. We further show that topological constraints are conserved across tRNA's different naturally occurring secondary structures. Taken together, our results emphasize the central role of secondary-structure-encoded topological constraints in defining RNA 3D structure, dynamics and folding.

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