Hidden Intermediates in Mango III RNA Aptamer Folding Revealed by Pressure Perturbation

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Fluorescent RNA aptamers have the potential to enable routine quantitation and localization of RNA molecules and serve as models for understanding biologically active aptamers. In recent years, several fluorescent aptamers have been selected and modified to improve their properties, revealing that small changes to the RNA or the ligands can modify significantly their fluorescent properties. Although structural biology approaches have revealed the bound, ground state of several fluorescent aptamers, characterization of low-abundance, excited states in these systems is crucial to understanding their folding pathways. Here we use pressure as an alternative variable to probe the suboptimal states of the Mango III aptamer with both fluorescence and NMR spectroscopy approaches. At moderate KCl concentrations, increasing pressure disrupted the G-quadruplex structure of the Mango III RNA and led to an intermediate with lower fluorescence. These observations indicate the existence of suboptimal RNA structural states that still bind the TO1-biotin fluorophore and moderately enhance fluorescence. At higher KCl concentration as well, the intermediate fluorescence state was populated at high pressure, but the G-quadruplex remained stable at high pressure, supporting the notion of parallel folding and/or binding pathways. These results demonstrate the usefulness of pressure for characterizing RNA folding intermediates.