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Enhanced Specificity against Misfolding in a Thermostable Mutant of the Tetrahymena Ribozyme

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journal contribution
posted on 08.02.2011 by Yaqi Wan, Rick Russell
Structured RNAs encode native conformations that are more stable than the vast ensembles of alternative conformations, but how this specificity is evolved is incompletely understood. Here we show that a variant of the Tetrahymena group I intron ribozyme that was generated previously by in vitro selection for enhanced thermostability also displays modestly enhanced specificity against a stable misfolded structure that is globally similar to the native state, despite the absence of selective pressure to increase the energy gap between these structures. The enhanced specificity for native folding arises from mutations in two nucleotides that are close together in space in the native structure, and additional experiments show that these two mutations do not affect the stability of the misfolded conformation relative to the largely unstructured transition state ensemble for interconversion between the native and misfolded conformers. Thus, they selectively stabilize the native state, presumably by strengthening a local tertiary contact network that cannot form in the misfolded conformation. The stabilization is larger in the presence of the peripheral element P5abc, suggesting that cooperative tertiary structure formation plays a key role in the enhanced stability. The increased specificity in the absence of explicit selection suggests that the large energy gap in the wild-type RNA may have arisen analogously, a consequence of selective pressure for stability of the functional structure. More generally, the structural rigidity and intricate networks of contacts in structured RNAs may allow them to evolve substantial structural specificity without explicit negative selection, even against closely related alternative structures.