Equilibrium conformational dynamics in an RNA tetraloop from massively parallel molecular dynamics

AJ DePaul, EJ Thompson, SS Patel, K Haldeman & EJ Sorin.
Nucleic Acids Research (2010) 38, 4856-4867 (Featured Cover Article)

We continue to study a small but ubiquitous RNA structural motif known as the GNRA tetraloop. This structure plays a role in the formation of larger RNA’s and is also of great interest due to its statistical overabundance in RNA structure. Our study demonstrates the highly flexible and dynamic properties of this structure, and also highlights the ability of this sequence to take on a number of non-native configurations in order to interact with adjacent RNA strands, suggesting that conformational entropy acts to stabilize this loop when not in its native conformation.

Conformational equilibrium within the ubiquitous GNRA tetraloop motif was simulated at the ensemble level, including 10,000 independent all atom molecular dynamics trajectories totaling over 110 microseconds of simulation time. This robust sampling reveals a highly dynamic structure comprised of 15 conformational microstates. We assemble a Markov model that includes transitions ranging from the nanosecond to microsecond timescales and is dominated by six key loop conformations that contribute to fluctuations around the native state. Mining of the Protein Data Bank provides an abundance of structures in which GNRA tetraloops participate in tertiary contact formation. Most predominantly observed in the experimental data are interactions of the native loop structure within the minor groove of adjacent helical regions. Additionally, a second trend is observed in which the tetraloop assumes non-native conformations while participating in multiple tertiary contacts, in some cases involving multiple possible loop conformations. This tetraloop flexibility can act to counterbalance the energetic penalty associated with assuming non-native loop structures in forming tertiary contacts. The GNRA motif has thus evolved not only to readily participate in simple tertiary interactions involving native loop structure, but also to easily adapt tetraloop secondary conformation in order to participate in larger, more complex tertiary interactions.