Quantifying the energetic interplay of RNA tertiary and secondary structure interactions

Scott K. Silverman, Minxue Zheng, Ming Wu, Ignacio Tinoco, Thomas R. Cech

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


To understand the RNA-folding problem, we must know the extent to which RNA structure formation is hierarchical (tertiary folding of preformed secondary structure). Recently, nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy was used to show that Mg2+-dependent tertiary interactions force secondary structure rearrangement in the 56-nt tP5abc RNA, a truncated subdomain of the Tetrahymena group I intron. Here we combine mutagenesis with folding computations, nondenaturing gel electrophoresis, high-resolution NMR spectroscopy, and chemical-modification experiments to probe further the energetic interplay of tertiary and secondary interactions in tP5abc. Point mutations predicted to destabilize the secondary structure of folded tP5abc greatly disrupt its Mg2+-dependent folding, as monitored by nondenaturing gels. Imino proton assignments and sequential NOE walks of the two- dimensional NMR spectrum of one of the tP5abc mutants confirm the predicted secondary structure, which does not change in the presence of Mg2+. In contrast to these data on tP5abc, the same point mutations in the context of the P4-P6 domain (of which P5abc is a subdomain) shift the Mg2+ dependence of P4-P6 folding only moderately, and dimethyl sulfate (DMS) modification experiments demonstrate that Mg2+ does cause secondary structure rearrangement of the P4-P6 mutants' P5abc subdomains. Our data provide experimental support for two simple conclusions: (1) Even single point mutations at bases involved only in secondary structure can be enough to tip the balance between RNA tertiary and secondary interactions. (2) Domain context must be considered in evaluating the relative importance of tertiary and secondary contributions. This tertiary/secondary interplay is likely relevant to the folding of many large RNA and to bimolecular snRNA-snRNA and snRNA-intron RNA interactions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1665-1674
Number of pages10
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 1999
Externally publishedYes


  • DMS modification
  • NMR
  • Nondenaturing gel electrophoresis
  • P4- P6
  • P5abc
  • Secondary structure rearrangement
  • tP5abc

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Molecular Biology


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