Gül H. Zerze, Pablo M. Piaggi, and Pablo G. Debenedetti
J. Phys. Chem. B 125, 50, 13685-13695 (2021)
An important characteristic of RNA folding is the adoption of alternative configurations of similar stability, often referred to as misfolded configurations. These configurations are considered to compete with correctly folded configurations, although their rigorous thermodynamic and structural characterization remains elusive. Tetraloop motifs found in large ribozymes are ideal systems for an atomistically detailed computational quantification of folding free energy landscapes and the structural characterization of their constituent free energy basins, including nonnative states. In this work, we studied a group of closely related 10-mer tetraloops using a combined parallel tempering and metadynamics technique that allows a reliable sampling of the free energy landscapes, requiring only knowledge that the stem folds into a canonical A-RNA configuration. We isolated and analyzed unfolded, folded, and misfolded populations that correspond to different free energy basins. We identified a distinct misfolded state that has a stability very close to that of the correctly folded state. This misfolded state contains a predominant population that shares the same structural features across all tetraloops studied here and lacks the noncanonical A-G base pair in its loop portion. Further analysis performed with biased trajectories showed that although this competitive misfolded state is not an essential intermediate, it is visited in most of the transitions from unfolded to correctly folded states. Moreover, the tetraloops can transition from this misfolded state to the correctly folded state without requiring extensive unfolding.