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Measurement of the Effect of Monovalent Cations on RNA Hairpin Stability

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journal contribution
posted on 05.12.2007, 00:00 by Jeffrey Vieregg, Wei Cheng, Carlos Bustamante, Ignacio Tinoco
Using optical tweezers, we have measured the effect of monovalent cation concentration and species on the folding free energy of five large (49−124 nt) RNA hairpins, including HIV-1 TAR and molecules approximating A·U and G·C homopolymers. RNA secondary structure thermodynamics are accurately described by a model consisting of nearest-neighbor interactions and additive loop and bulge terms. Melting of small (<15 bp) duplexes and hairpins in 1 M NaCl has been used to determine the parameters of this model, which is now used extensively to predict structure and folding dynamics. Few systematic measurements have been made in other ionic conditions or for larger structures. By applying mechanical force, we measured the work required to fold and unfold single hairpins at room temperature over a range of cation concentrations from 50 to 1000 mM. Free energies were then determined using the Crooks fluctuation theorem. We observed the following:  (1) In most cases, the nearest-neighbor model accurately predicted the free energy of folding at 1 M NaCl. (2) Free energy was proportional to the logarithm of salt concentration. (3) Substituting potassium ions for sodium slightly decreased hairpin stability. The TAR hairpin also misfolded nearly twice as often in KCl, indicating a differential kinetic response. (4) Monovalent cation concentration affects RNA stability in a sequence-dependent manner. G·C helices were unaffected by changing salt concentration, A·U helices were modestly affected, and the hairpin loop was very sensitive. Surprisingly, the U·C·U bulge of TAR was found to be equally stable in all conditions tested. We also report a new estimate for the elastic parameters of single-stranded RNA.

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