Metal ions in the structure and function of RNA
It is becoming increasingly clear that RNA is more than a passive carrier of genetic information. Folded RNA molecules play key roles in almost every aspect of cellular metabolism, including protein transport, RNA splicing, peptide bond formation, and translational regulation. This is facilitated by the multifunctional nature of RNA biopolymers which can serve as rigid structural scaffolds, conformational switches, and catalysts for chemical reactions. In all cases, metal ions play a crucial role in RNA function. For folded RNA molecules, the pathway for adopting proper tertiary structure, and the stabilization of that structure, depends on specific and nonspecific interactions with certain classes of metal ions. There is a rapidly expanding repertoire of RNA structural motifs that typically sequester metal ions, and these are being studied using new spectroscopic and chemical methodologies. Many ribozymes (catalytic RNA molecules) depend on metal ions as cofactors that are explicitly involved in the chemical mechanism of catalysis. All of these functions are exemplified by recent studies of group II introns, which are among the largest ribozymes found in Nature. In this case, there are specific roles for metal ions in the folding pathway, the tertiary structure and the chemical mechanism.
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