Conformational flexibility of four-way junctions in RNA

J Mol Biol. 2004 Feb 6;336(1):69-79. doi: 10.1016/j.jmb.2003.12.014.


Helical junctions are common architectural features in RNA. They are particularly important in autonomously folding molecules, as exemplified by the hairpin ribozyme. We have used single-molecule fluorescence spectroscopy to study the dynamic properties of the perfect (4H) four-way helical junction derived from the hairpin ribozyme. In the presence of Mg(2+), the junction samples parallel and antiparallel conformations and both stacking conformers, with a bias towards one antiparallel stacking conformer. There is continual interconversion between the forms, such that there are several transitions per second under physiological conditions. Our data suggest that interconversion proceeds via an open intermediate with reduced cation binding in which coaxial stacking between helices is disrupted. The rate of interconversion becomes slower at higher Mg(2+) concentrations, yet the activation barrier decreases under these conditions, indicating that entropic effects are important. Transitions also occur in the presence of Na(+) only; however, the coaxial stacking appears incomplete under these conditions. The polymorphic and dynamic character of the four-way RNA junction provides a source of structural diversity, from which particular conformations required for biological function might be stabilised by additional RNA interactions or protein binding.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Fluorescence Resonance Energy Transfer
  • Magnesium / chemistry
  • Models, Molecular
  • Nucleic Acid Conformation*
  • RNA / chemistry*
  • RNA / metabolism
  • Sodium / chemistry
  • Temperature


  • RNA
  • Sodium
  • Magnesium