A rugged free energy landscape separates multiple functional RNA folds throughout denaturation

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The dynamic mechanisms by which RNAs acquire biologically functional structures are of increasing importance to the rapidly expanding fields of RNA therapeutics and biotechnology. Large energy barriers separating misfolded and functional states arising from alternate base pairing are a well-appreciated characteristic of RNA. In contrast, it is typically assumed that functionally folded RNA occupies a single native basin of attraction that is free of deeply dividing energy barriers (ergodic hypothesis). This assumption is widely used as an implicit basis to interpret experimental ensemble-averaged data. Here, we develop an experimental approach to isolate persistent sub-populations of a small RNA enzyme and show by single molecule fluorescence resonance energy transfer (smFRET), biochemical probing and high-resolution mass spectrometry that commitment to one of several catalytically active folds occurs unexpectedly high on the RNA folding energy landscape, resulting in partially irreversible folding. Our experiments reveal the retention of molecular heterogeneity following the complete loss of all native secondary and tertiary structure. Our results demonstrate a surprising longevity of molecular heterogeneity and advance our current understanding beyond that of non-functional misfolds of RNA kinetically trapped on a rugged folding-free energy landscape.

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