Remarkable morphological variability of a common RNA folding motif: the GNRA tetraloop-receptor interaction

J Mol Biol. 1997 Feb 28;266(3):493-506. doi: 10.1006/jmbi.1996.0810.


One of the most common RNA tertiary interactions involves the docking of GNRA hairpin loops into stem-loop structures on other regions of RNA. Domain 5 of the group II intron interacts with Domain 1 through such an interaction, which has been characterized thermodynamically and kinetically for the ai5g intron. Using this system, it was possible to test the morphological tolerances of the GNRA tetraloop involved in tertiary interactions. The data presented herein show that a GNRA tetraloop can still participate in tertiary interaction after being physically cut at any phosphodiester linkage within the loop. The "nicked tetraloop" can be expanded by many nucleotides in either direction and the covalently continuous loop can also be expanded without loss of interaction energy. In the context of the nicked tetraloop, the second nucleotide of the tetraloop sequence can be completely deleted without loss of function. By examining radical alterations in tetraloop structure, this study helps define the minimal sequence and structural requirements of a GNRA motif involved in long-range tertiary interaction. It shows that "tetraloop"-like structures capable of forming tertiary interactions can be imbedded in unexpected contexts, such as internal loops and apparently open structure within RNA. It demonstrates that pentaloops and hexaloops can form the same type of interaction, with almost equal affinity, as a tetraloop. Taken together, these data suggest a more generic term for the GNRA tetraloop-receptor interaction: It is proposed herein that the term "GNRA tetraloop" be replaced by "GNn/RA", where n represents a variable number of nucleotides and / indicates that the loop can be divided and interrupted by other sequences.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Kinetics
  • Nucleic Acid Conformation*
  • RNA / chemistry*
  • RNA / genetics
  • Sequence Analysis


  • RNA