Tetraloops with the generic sequence GNRA are commonly found in RNA secondary structure, and interactions of such tetraloops with "receptors" elsewhere in RNA play important roles in RNA structure and folding. However, the contributions of tetraloop-receptor interactions specifically to the kinetics of RNA tertiary folding, rather than the thermodynamics of maintaining tertiary structure once folded, have not been reported. Here we investigate the role of the key GAAA tetraloop-receptor motif in folding of the P4-P6 domain of the Tetrahymena group I intron RNA. Insertions of one or more nucleotides into the tetraloop significantly disrupt the thermodynamics of tertiary folding; single-nucleotide insertions shift the folding free energy by 2-4 kcal/mol (ΔΔG°′). The folding kinetics of several modified P4-P6 domains were determined by stopped-flow fluorescence spectroscopy, using an internally incorporated pyrene residue as the chromophore. In contrast to the thermodynamic results, the kinetics of Mg2+-induced folding were barely affected by the tetraloop modifications, with a ΔΔG‡ of 0.2-0.4 kcal/mol and a Φ value (ratio of the kinetic and thermodynamic contributions) of <0.1. These data indicate an early transition state for folding of P4-P6 with respect to forming the tetraloop-receptor contact, consistent with previous results for modifications elsewhere in P4-P6. We conclude that the GAAA tetraloop-receptor motif contributes little to the stabilization of the transition state for Mg2+-induced P4-P6 folding. Rather, the tetraloopreceptor motif acts to clamp the RNA once folding has occurred. This is the first report to correlate the kinetic and thermodynamic contributions of an important RNA tertiary motif, the GNRA tetraloop-receptor. The results are related to possible models for the Mg2+-induced folding of the P4-P6 RNA, including a model invoking rapid nonspecific electrostatic collapse.
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