Trimethylamine N-oxide stabilizes RNA tertiary structure and attenuates the denaturating effects of urea

J Am Chem Soc. 2003 Apr 16;125(15):4418-9. doi: 10.1021/ja0292997.


Trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO) and urea are osmolytes. Osmolytes allow cells to remain viable in harsh or extreme environments. Both TMAO and urea are found in shark and rays at approximate molar ratios of 1:2, respectively. At this ratio TMAO nearly completely counteracts the destabilizing effects that urea has on proteins. We ask whether RNA, which is denatured by urea, is stabilized by TMAO in a manner similar to that seen for proteins. We found that TMAO stabilizes Escherichia coli tRNAfmet tertiary structure and counteracts the denaturing effects of urea at the same ratios found for proteins. Cation binding usually drives RNA tertiary structure formation. These results suggest that tertiary structure stability is not only sensitive to cations but also to the aqueous composition and properties of the solvent. We propose that tertiary structure folding is driven by unfavorable interactions between TMAO and the phosphodiester backbone.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Escherichia coli / chemistry
  • Escherichia coli / genetics
  • Methylamines / chemistry*
  • Nucleic Acid Conformation
  • RNA, Bacterial / chemistry*
  • RNA, Transfer, Met / chemistry*
  • Thermodynamics
  • Urea / chemistry*


  • Methylamines
  • RNA, Bacterial
  • RNA, Transfer, Met
  • tRNA, formylmethionine-
  • Urea
  • trimethyloxamine