RNA junctions are common secondary structural elements present in a wide range of RNA species. They play crucial roles in directing the overall folding of RNA molecules as well as in a variety of biological functions. In particular, there has been great interest in the dynamics of RNA junctions, including conformational pathways of fully base-paired 4-way (4H) RNA junctions. In such constructs, all nucleotides participate in one of the four double-stranded stem regions, with no connecting loops. Dynamical aspects of these 4H RNAs are interesting because frequent interchanges between parallel and antiparallel conformations are thought to occur without binding of other factors. Gel electrophoresis and single-molecule fluorescence resonance energy transfer experiments have suggested two possible pathways: one involves a helical rearrangement via disruption of coaxial stacking, and the other occurs by a rotation between the helical axes of coaxially stacked conformers. Employing molecular dynamics simulations, we explore this conformational variability in a 4H junction derived from domain 3 of the foot-and-mouth disease virus internal ribosome entry site (IRES); this junction contains highly conserved motifs for RNA-RNA and RNA-protein interactions, important for IRES activity. Our simulations capture transitions of the 4H junction between parallel and antiparallel conformations. The interconversion is virtually barrier-free and occurs via a rotation between the axes of coaxially stacked helices with a transient perpendicular intermediate. We characterize this transition, with various interhelical orientations, by pseudodihedral angle and interhelical distance measures. The high flexibility of the junction, as also demonstrated experimentally, is suitable for IRES activity. Because foot-and-mouth disease virus IRES structure depends on long-range interactions involving domain 3, the perpendicular intermediate, which maintains coaxial stacking of helices and thereby consensus primary and secondary structure information, may be beneficial for guiding the overall organization of the RNA system in domain 3.
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