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Issue 24, 2011
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The shape-shifting quasispecies of RNA: one sequence, many functional folds

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E Unus pluribum, or “Of One, Many”, may be at the root of decoding the RNA sequence-structure–function relationship. RNAs embody the large majority of genes in higher eukaryotes and fold in a sequence-directed fashion into three-dimensional structures that perform functions conserved across all cellular life forms, ranging from regulating to executing gene expression. While it is the most important determinant of the RNA structure, the nucleotide sequence is generally not sufficient to specify a unique set of secondary and tertiary interactions due to the highly frustrated nature of RNA folding. This frustration results in folding heterogeneity, a common phenomenon wherein a chemically homogeneous population of RNA molecules folds into multiple stable structures. Often, these alternative conformations constitute misfolds, lacking the biological activity of the natively folded RNA. Intriguingly, a number of RNAs have recently been described as capable of adopting multiple distinct conformations that all perform, or contribute to, the same function. Characteristically, these conformations interconvert slowly on the experimental timescale, suggesting that they should be regarded as distinct native states. We discuss how rugged folding free energy landscapes give rise to multiple native states in the Tetrahymena Group I intron ribozyme, hairpin ribozyme, sarcin–ricin loop, ribosome, and an in vitro selected aptamer. We further describe the varying degrees to which folding heterogeneity impacts function in these RNAs, and compare and contrast this impact with that of heterogeneities found in protein folding. Embracing that one sequence can give rise to multiple native folds, we hypothesize that this phenomenon imparts adaptive advantages on any functionally evolving RNA quasispecies.

Graphical abstract: The shape-shifting quasispecies of RNA: one sequence, many functional folds

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Publication details

The article was received on 02 Mar 2011, accepted on 15 Apr 2011 and first published on 20 May 2011

Article type: Perspective
DOI: 10.1039/C1CP20576E
Phys. Chem. Chem. Phys., 2011,13, 11524-11537

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    The shape-shifting quasispecies of RNA: one sequence, many functional folds

    M. S. Marek, A. Johnson-Buck and N. G. Walter, Phys. Chem. Chem. Phys., 2011, 13, 11524
    DOI: 10.1039/C1CP20576E

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