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A new entropy model for RNA: part III. Is the folding free energy landscape of RNA funnel shaped?

Author(s): Wayne Dawson | Toshikuni Takai | Nobuharu Ito | Kentaro Shimizu | Gota Kawai

Journal: Journal of Nucleic Acids Investigation
ISSN 2036-7996

Volume: 4;
Issue: 1;
Date: 2013;
Original page

Keywords: Entropy | RNA structure | suboptimal structure | thermodynamics | bioinformatics

The concept of a free energy (FE) landscape, in which the surface spirals down like a funnel, has long been viewed as the reason why a complex protein structure forms so rapidly compared to the number of conformations available to it. On the other hand, this landscape picture is less clear with RNA due to the multiplicity of conformations and the uncertainties in the current thermodynamics. It is therefore sometimes proposed that the ensemble average is the main factor deciding the structure. However, calculations of the free energy of observed structures often suggest that this ensemble is far from the minimum FE, particularly in the case of long sequences. If so, then such a FE surface is unlikely to be funnel shaped. We have been developing a version of vsfold that can evaluate the suboptimal structures of the FE surface (vs_subopt). Here we show that the ensemble for a number of known RNA structures can actually be both close to the minimum FE and also be the dominant observed structure when a proper Kuhn length is selected. Two state aptamers known as riboswitches can show neighboring FE states in the suboptimal structures that match the observed structures and their relative difference in FE is well within the range of the binding free energy of the metabolite. For the riboswitches and other short RNA sequences (less than 250 nt), the flow of the suboptimal structures (including pseudoknots) tended to resemble a rock rolling down a hill along the reaction coordinate axis.
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