Secondary structure of the central region of bacteriophage MS2 RNA. Conservation and biological significance

J Mol Biol. 1990 Jan 20;211(2):447-63. doi: 10.1016/0022-2836(90)90364-R.


The RNA of the Escherichia coli RNA phages is highly structured with 75% of the nucleotides estimated to take part in base-pairing. We have used enzymatic and chemical sensitivity of nucleotides, phylogenetic sequence comparison and the phenotypes of constructed mutants to develop a secondary structure model for the central region (900 nucleotides) of the group I phage MS2. The RNA folds into a number of, mostly irregular, helices and is further condensed by several long-distance interactions. There is substantial conservation of helices between the related groups I and II, attesting to the relevance of discrete RNA folding. In general, the secondary structure is thought to be needed to prevent annealing of plus and minus strand and to confer protection against RNase. Superimposed, however, are features required to regulate translation and replication. The MS2 RNA section studied here contains three translational start sites, as well as the binding sites for the coat protein and the replicase enzyme. Considering the density of helices along the RNA, it is not unexpected to find that all these sites lie in helical regions. This fact, however, does not mean that these sites are recognized as secondary structure elements by their interaction partners. This holds true only for the coat protein binding site. The other four sites function in the unfolded state and the stability of the helix in which they are contained serves to negatively control their accessibility. Mutations that stabilize helices containing ribosomal binding sites reduce their efficiency and vice versa. Comparison of homologous helices in different phage RNAs indicates that base substitutions have occurred in such a way that the thermodynamic stability of the helix is maintained. The evolution of individual helices shows several distinct size-reduction patterns. We have observed codon deletions from loop areas and shortening of hairpins by base-pair deletions from either the bottom, the middle or the top of stem structures. Evidence for the coaxial stacking of some helical segments is discussed.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Base Composition
  • Base Sequence
  • Coliphages / genetics*
  • Escherichia coli / genetics*
  • Models, Molecular
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Nucleic Acid Conformation
  • Oligonucleotide Probes
  • RNA Viruses / genetics*
  • RNA, Viral / genetics*
  • RNA, Viral / ultrastructure
  • Sequence Homology, Nucleic Acid


  • Oligonucleotide Probes
  • RNA, Viral