RNA Electrostatics: How Ribozymes Engineer Active Sites to Enable Catalysis

The Journal of Physical Chemistry B vol. 126  p. 5982-5990  DOI: 10.1021/acs.jpcb.2c03727  Published: 2022-07-25 

Şölen Ekesan [ ] , Erika McCarthy [ ] , David A. Case, Darrin M. York [ ]

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Electrostatic interactions are fundamental to RNA structure and function, and intimately influenced by solvation and the ion atmosphere. RNA enzymes, or ribozymes, are catalytic RNAs that are able to enhance reaction rates over a million-fold, despite having only a limited repertoire of building blocks and available set of chemical functional groups. Ribozyme active sites usually occur at junctions where negatively charged helices come together, and in many cases leverage this strained electrostatic environment to recruit metal ions in solution that can assist in catalysis. Similar strategies have been implicated in related artificially engineered DNA enzymes. Herein, we apply Poisson–Boltzmann, 3D-RISM, and molecular simulations to study a set of metal-dependent small self-cleaving ribozymes (hammerhead, pistol, and Varkud satellite) as well as an artificially engineered DNAzyme (8–17) to examine electrostatic features and their relation to the recruitment of monovalent and divalent metal ions important for activity. We examine several fundamental roles for these ions that include: (1) structural integrity of the catalytically active state, (2) pKa tuning of residues involved in acid–base catalysis, and (3) direct electrostatic stabilization of the transition state via Lewis acid catalysis. Taken together, these examples demonstrate how RNA electrostatics orchestrates the site-specific and territorial binding of metal ions to play important roles in catalysis.