The visualization of RNA conformational changes has provided fundamental insights into how regulatory RNAs carry out their biological functions. The RNA structural transitions that have been characterized so far involve long-lived species that can be captured by structure characterization techniques. Here we report the nuclear magnetic resonance visualization of RNA transitions towards ‘invisible’ excited states (ESs), which exist in too little abundance (2–13%) and for too short a duration (45–250 μs) to allow structural characterization by conventional techniques. Transitions towards ESs result in localized rearrangements in base-pairing that alter building block elements of RNA architecture, including helix–junction–helix motifs and apical loops. The ES can inhibit function by sequestering residues involved in recognition and signalling or promote ATP-independent strand exchange. Thus, RNAs do not adopt a single conformation, but rather exist in rapid equilibrium with alternative ESs, which can be stabilized by cellular cues to affect functional outcomes.
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- Supplementary Information (7.5M)
This file contains Supplementary Figures 1-8, Supplementary Tables 1-2, a Supplementary Discussion and additional references.