Exploring RNA structural codes with SHAPE chemistry

Acc Chem Res. 2011 Dec 20;44(12):1280-91. doi: 10.1021/ar200051h. Epub 2011 May 26.


RNA is the central conduit for gene expression. This role depends on an ability to encode information at two levels: in its linear sequence and in the complex structures RNA can form by folding back on itself. Understanding the global structure-function interrelationships mediated by RNA remains a great challenge in molecular and structural biology. In this Account, we discuss evolving work in our laboratory focused on creating facile, generic, quantitative, accurate, and highly informative approaches for understanding RNA structure in biologically important environments. The core innovation derives from our discovery that the nucleophilic reactivity of the ribose 2'-hydroxyl in RNA is gated by local nucleotide flexibility. The 2'-hydroxyl is reactive at conformationally flexible positions but is unreactive at nucleotides constrained by base pairing. Sites of modification in RNA can be detected efficiently either using primer extension or by protection from exoribonucleolytic degradation. This technology is now called SHAPE, for selective 2'-hydroxyl acylation analyzed by primer extension (or protection from exoribonuclease). SHAPE reactivities are largely independent of nucleotide identity but correlate closely with model-free measurements of molecular order. The simple SHAPE reaction is thus a robust, nucleotide-resolution, biophysical measurement of RNA structure. SHAPE can be used to provide an experimental correction to RNA folding algorithms and, in favorable cases, yield kilobase-scale secondary structure predictions with high accuracies. SHAPE chemistry is based on very simple reactive carbonyl centers that can be varied to yield slow- and fast-reacting reagents. Differential SHAPE reactivities can be used to detect specific RNA positions with slow local nucleotide dynamics. These positions, which are often in the C2'-endo conformation, have the potential to function as molecular timers that regulate RNA folding and function. In addition, fast-reacting SHAPE reagents can be used to visualize RNA structural biogenesis and RNA-protein assembly reactions in one second snapshots in very straightforward experiments. The application of SHAPE to challenging problems in biology has revealed surprises in well-studied systems. New regions have been identified that are likely to have critical functional roles on the basis of their high levels of RNA structure. For example, SHAPE analysis of large RNAs, such as authentic viral RNA genomes, suggests that RNA structure organizes regulatory motifs and regulates splicing, protein folding, genome recombination, and ribonucleoprotein assembly. SHAPE has also revealed limitations to the hierarchical model for RNA folding. Continued development and application of SHAPE technologies will advance our understanding of the many ways in which the genetic code is expressed through the underlying structure of RNA.

MeSH terms

  • Acylation
  • Algorithms
  • Hydroxides / chemistry
  • Nucleic Acid Conformation
  • Protein Binding
  • Proteins / chemistry
  • Proteins / metabolism
  • RNA / chemistry*
  • RNA / metabolism
  • RNA Folding


  • Hydroxides
  • Proteins
  • RNA
  • hydroxide ion