Molecular crowders and cosolutes promote folding cooperativity of RNA under physiological ionic conditions

Christopher A. Strulson, Joshua A. Boyer, Elisabeth E. Whitman, Philip C. Bevilacqua

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56 Scopus citations


Folding mechanisms of functional RNAs under idealized in vitro conditions of dilute solution and high ionic strength have been well studied. Comparatively little is known, however, about mechanisms for folding of RNA in vivo where Mg2+ ion concentrations are low, K+ concentrations are modest, and concentrations of macromolecular crowders and low-molecular-weight cosolutes are high. Herein, we apply a combination of biophysical and structure mapping techniques to tRNA to elucidate thermodynamic and functional principles that govern RNA folding under in vivo-like conditions. We show by thermal denaturation and SHAPE studies that tRNA folding cooperativity increases in physiologically low concentrations of Mg2+ (0.5-2 mM) and K+ (140 mM) if the solution is supplemented with physiological amounts (20%) of a water-soluble neutral macromolecular crowding agent such as PEG or dextran. Low-molecular-weight cosolutes show varying effects on tRNA folding cooperativity, increasing or decreasing it based on the identity of the cosolute. For those additives that increase folding cooperativity, the gain is manifested in sharpened two-state-like folding transitions for full-length tRNA over its secondary structural elements. Temperaturedependent SHAPE experiments in the absence and presence of crowders and cosolutes reveal extent of cooperative folding of tRNA on a nucleotide basis and are consistent with the melting studies. Mechanistically, crowding agents appear to promote cooperativity by stabilizing tertiary structure, while those low molecular cosolutes that promote cooperativity stabilize tertiary structure and/or destabilize secondary structure. Cooperative folding of functional RNA under physiological-like conditions parallels the behavior of many proteins and has implications for cellular RNA folding kinetics and evolution.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)331-347
Number of pages17
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2014

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Molecular Biology


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