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Winter 2-1-2001

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Tertiary folding of the 160-nt P4-P6 domain of the Tetrahymena group I intron RNA involves burying of substantial surface area, providing a model for the folding of other large RNA domains involved in catalysis. Stopped-flow fluorescence was used to monitor the Mg2+-induced tertiary folding of pyrene-labeled P4-P6. At 35 degrees C with [Mg2+] approximately 10 mM, P4-P6 folds on the tens of milliseconds timescale with k(obs) = 15-31 s(-1). From these values, an activation free energy deltaG(double dagger) of approximately 8-16 kcal/mol is calculated, where the large range for deltaG(double dagger) arises from uncertainty in the pre-exponential factor relating k(obs) and delta G(double dagger). The folding rates of six mutant P4-P6 RNAs were measured and found to be similar to that of the wild-type RNA, in spite of significant thermodynamic destabilization or stabilization. The ratios of the kinetic and thermodynamic free energy changes phi = delta deltaG(double dagger)/delta deltaG(o') are approximately 0, implying a folding transition state in which most of the native-state tertiary contacts are not yet formed (an early folding transition state). The k(obs) depends on the Mg2+ concentration, and the initial slope of k(obs) versus [Mg2+] suggests that only approximately 1 Mg2+ ion is bound in the rate-limiting folding step. This is consistent with an early folding transition state, because folded P4-P6 binds many Mg2+ ions. The observation of a substantial deltaG(double dagger) despite an early folding transition state suggests that a simple two-state folding diagram for Mg2+-induced P4-P6 folding is incomplete. Our kinetic data are some of the first to provide quantitative values for an activation barrier and location of a transition state for tertiary folding of an RNA domain.