Computational and Experimental Characterization of rDNA and rRNA G-Quadruplexes

J Phys Chem B. 2022 Jan 27;126(3):609-619. doi: 10.1021/acs.jpcb.1c08340. Epub 2022 Jan 13.


DNA G-quadruplexes in human telomeres and gene promoters are being extensively studied for their role in controlling the growth of cancer cells. G-quadruplexes have been unambiguously shown to exist both in vitro and in vivo, including in the guanine (G)-rich DNA genes encoding pre-ribosomal RNA (pre-rRNA), which is transcribed in the cell's nucleolus. Recent studies strongly suggest that these DNA sequences ("rDNA"), and the transcribed rRNA, are a potential anticancer target through the inhibition of RNA polymerase I (Pol I) in ribosome biogenesis, but the structures of ribosomal G-quadruplexes at atomic resolution are unknown and very little biophysical characterization has been performed on them to date. In the present study, circular dichroism (CD) spectroscopy is used to show that two putative rDNA G-quadruplex sequences, NUC 19P and NUC 23P and their counterpart rRNAs, predominantly adopt parallel topologies, reminiscent of the analogous telomeric quadruplex structures. Based on this information, we modeled parallel topology atomistic structures of the putative ribosomal G-quadruplexes. We then validated and refined the modeled ribosomal G-quadruplex structures using all-atom molecular dynamics (MD) simulations with the CHARMM36 force field in the presence and absence of stabilizing K+. Motivated by preliminary MD simulations of the telomeric parallel G-quadruplex (TEL 24P) in which the K+ ion is expelled, we used updated CHARMM36 force field K+ parameters that were optimized, targeting the data from quantum mechanical calculations and the polarizable Drude model force field. In subsequent MD simulations with optimized CHARMM36 parameters, the K+ ions are predominantly in the G-quadruplex channel and the rDNA G-quadruplexes have more well-defined, predominantly parallel-topology structures as compared to rRNA. In addition, NUC 19P is more structured than NUC 23P, which contains extended loops. Results from this study set the structural foundation for understanding G-quadruplex functions and the design of novel chemotherapeutics against these nucleolar targets and can be readily extended to other DNA and RNA G-quadruplexes.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • DNA, Ribosomal / genetics
  • G-Quadruplexes*
  • Humans
  • Molecular Dynamics Simulation
  • RNA, Ribosomal / genetics
  • Telomere


  • DNA, Ribosomal
  • RNA, Ribosomal