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Mimicking Ribosomal Unfolding of RNA Pseudoknot in a Protein Channel

Zhang, Xinyue, Xu, Xiaojun, Yang, Zhiyu, Burcke, Andrew J., Gates, Kent S., Chen, Shi-Jie, Gu, Li-Qun
Journal of the American Chemical Society 2015 v.137 no.50 pp. 15742-15752
DNA, energy, messenger RNA, nanopores, optical traps, spectroscopy
Pseudoknots are a fundamental RNA tertiary structure with important roles in regulation of mRNA translation. Molecular force spectroscopic approaches such as optical tweezers can track the pseudoknot’s unfolding intermediate states by pulling the RNA chain from both ends, but the kinetic unfolding pathway induced by this method may be different from that in vivo, which occurs during translation and proceeds from the 5′ to 3′ end. Here we developed a ribosome-mimicking, nanopore pulling assay for dissecting the vectorial unfolding mechanism of pseudoknots. The pseudoknot unfolding pathway in the nanopore, either from the 5′ to 3′ end or in the reverse direction, can be controlled by a DNA leader that is attached to the pseudoknot at the 5′ or 3′ ends. The different nanopore conductance between DNA and RNA translocation serves as a marker for the position and structure of the unfolding RNA in the pore. With this design, we provided evidence that the pseudoknot unfolding is a two-step, multistate, metal ion-regulated process depending on the pulling direction. Most notably, unfolding in both directions is rate-limited by the unzipping of the first helix domain (first step), which is Helix-1 in the 5′ → 3′ direction and Helix-2 in the 3′ → 5′ direction, suggesting that the initial unfolding step in either pulling direction needs to overcome an energy barrier contributed by the noncanonical triplex base-pairs and coaxial stacking interactions for the tertiary structure stabilization. These findings provide new insights into RNA vectorial unfolding mechanisms, which play an important role in biological functions including frameshifting.