Conformational transitions in RNA single uridine and adenosine bulge structures: A molecular dynamics free energy simulation study

André Barthel, Martin Zacharias

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

39 Scopus citations


Extra unmatched nucleotides (single base bulges) are common structural motifs in folded RNA molecules and can participate in RNA-ligand binding and RNA tertiary structure formation. Often these processes are associated with conformational transitions in the bulge region such as flipping out of the bulge base from an intrahelical stacked toward a looped out state. Knowledge of the flexibility of bulge structures and energetics of conformational transitions is an important prerequisite to better understand the function of this RNA motif. Molecular dynamics simulations were performed on single uridine and adenosine bulge nucleotides at the center of eight basepair RNA molecules and indicated larger flexibility of the bulge bases compared to basepaired regions. The umbrella sampling method was applied to study the bulge base looping out process and accompanying conformational and free energy changes. Looping out toward the major groove resulted in partial disruption of adjacent basepairs and was found to be less favorable compared to looping out toward the minor groove. For both uridine and adenosine bulges, a positive free energy change for full looping out was obtained which was ∼1.5 kcal mol-1 higher in the case of the adenosine compared to the uridine bulge system. The simulations also indicated stable partially looped out states with the bulge bases located in the RNA minor groove and forming base triples with 5′-neighboring basepairs. In the case of the uridine bulge this state was more stable than the intrahelical stacked bulge structure. Induced looping out toward the minor groove involved crossing of an energy barrier of ∼3.5 kcal mol-1 before reaching the base triple state. A continuum solvent analysis of intermediate bulge states indicated that electrostatic interactions stabilize looped out and base triple states, whereas van der Waals interactions and nonpolar contributions favor the stacked bulge conformation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2450-2462
Number of pages13
JournalBiophysical Journal
Issue number7
StatePublished - Apr 2006
Externally publishedYes


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