A requirement for specific RNA folding is that the free-energy landscape discriminate against non-native folds. While tertiary interactions are critical for stabilizing the native fold, they are relatively non-specific, suggesting additional mechanisms contribute to tertiary folding specificity. In this study, we use coarse-grained molecular dynamics simulations to explore how secondary structure shapes the tertiary free-energy landscape of the Azoarcus ribozyme. We show that steric and connectivity constraints posed by secondary structure strongly limit the accessible conformational space of the ribozyme, and that these so-called topological constraints in turn pose strong free-energy penalties on forming different tertiary contacts. Notably, native A-minor and base-triple interactions form with low conformational free energy, while non-native tetraloop/tetraloop-receptor interactions are penalized by high conformational free energies. Topological constraints also give rise to strong cooperativity between distal tertiary interactions, quantitatively matching prior experimental measurements. The specificity of the folding landscape is further enhanced as tertiary contacts place additional constraints on the conformational space, progressively funneling the molecule to the native state. These results indicate that secondary structure assists the ribozyme in navigating the otherwise rugged tertiary folding landscape, and further emphasize topological constraints as a key force in RNA folding.
© The Author(s) 2015. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Nucleic Acids Research.