Within the three-dimensional architectures of RNA molecules, divalent metal ions populate specific locations, shedding their water molecules to form chelates. These interactions help the RNA adopt and maintain specific conformations and frequently make essential contributions to function. Defining the locations of these site-bound metal ions remains challenging despite the growing database of RNA structures. Metal-ion rescue experiments have provided a powerful approach to identify and distinguish catalytic metal ions within RNA active sites, but the ability of such experiments to identify metal ions that contribute to tertiary structure acquisition and structural stability is less developed and has been challenged. Herein, we use the well-defined P4–P6 RNA domain of the Tetrahymena group I intron to reevaluate prior evidence against the discriminatory power of metal-ion rescue experiments and to advance thermodynamic descriptions necessary for interpreting these experiments. The approach successfully identifies ligands within the RNA that occupy the inner coordination sphere of divalent metal ions and distinguishes them from ligands that occupy the outer coordination sphere. Our results underscore the importance of obtaining complete folding isotherms and establishing and evaluating thermodynamic models in order to draw conclusions from metal-ion rescue experiments. These results establish metal-ion rescue as a rigorous tool for identifying and dissecting energetically important metal-ion interactions in RNAs that are noncatalytic but critical for RNA tertiary structure.
John K. Frederiksen; Nan-Sheng Li; Rhiju Das; Daniel Herschlag; Joseph A. Piccirilli
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