Although energetic and phylogenetic methods have been very successful for prediction of nucleic acid secondary structures, arrangement of these secondary structure elements into tertiary structure has remained a difficult problem. Here we explore the packing arrangements of DNA, RNA, and DNA/RNA hybrid molecules in crystals. In the conventional view, the highly charged double helix will be pushed toward isolation by favorable solvation effects; interactions with other like-charged stacks would be strongly disfavored. Contrary to this expectation, we find that most of the cases analyzed (~80%) exhibit specific, preferential packing between elements of secondary structure, which falls into three categories: (i) interlocking of major grooves of two helices, (ii) side-by-side parallel packing of helices, and (iii) placement of the ribose-phosphate backbone ridge of one helix into the major groove of another. The preponderance of parallel packing motifs is especially surprising. This category is expected to be maximally disfavored by charge repulsion. Instead, it comprises in excess of 50% of all packing interactions in crystals of A-form RNA and has also been observed in crystal structures of large RNA molecules. To explain this puzzle, we introduce a novel model for RNA folding. A simple calculation suggests that the entropy gained by a cloud of condensed cations surrounding the helices more than offsets the Coulombic repulsion of parallel arrangements. We propose that these condensed counterions are responsible for entropy-driven RNA collapse, analogous to the role of the hydrophobic effect in protein folding.
ASJC Scopus subject areas