Free energy landscapes of RNA/RNA complexes: With applications to snRNA complexes in spliceosomes

Song Cao, Shi Jie Chen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

29 Scopus citations


We develop a statistical mechanical model for RNA/RNA complexes with both intramolecular and intermolecular interactions. As an application of the model, we compute the free energy landscapes, which give the full distribution for all the possible conformations, for U4/U6 and U2/U6 in major spliceosome and U4atac/U6atac and U12/U6atac in minor spliceosome. Different snRNA experiments found contrasting structures, our free energy landscape theory shows why these structures emerge and how they compete with each other. For yeast U2/U6, the model predicts that the two distinct experimental structures, the four-helix junction structure and the helix Ib-containing structure, can actually coexist and specifically compete with each other. In addition, the energy landscapes suggest possible mechanisms for the conformational switches in splicing. For instance, our calculation shows that coaxial stacking is essential for stabilizing the four-helix junction in yeast U2/U6. Therefore, inhibition of the coaxial stacking possibly by protein-binding may activate the conformational switch from the four-helix junction to the helix Ib-containing structure. Moreover, the change of the energy landscape shape gives information about the conformational changes. We find multiple (native-like and misfolded) intermediates formed through base-pairing rearrangements in snRNA complexes. For example, the unfolding of the U2/U6 undergoes a transition to a misfolded state which is functional, while in the unfolding of U12/U6atac, the functional helix Ib is found to be the last one to unfold and is thus the most stable structural component. Furthermore, the energy landscape gives the stabilities of all the possible (functional) intermediates and such information is directly related to splicing efficiency.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)292-312
Number of pages21
JournalJournal of Molecular Biology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 17 2006


  • Folding pathways
  • Free energy landscape
  • Major and minor spliceosomes
  • Misfolded state
  • RNA/RNA complex


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