To date, single-molecule RNA science has been developed almost exclusively around the effect of metal ions as folding promoters and stabilizers of the RNA structure. Here, we introduce a novel strategy that combines single-molecule Förster resonance energy transfer (FRET) and chemical denaturation to observe and manipulate RNA dynamics. We demonstrate that the competing interplay between metal ions and denaturant agents provides a platform to extract information that otherwise will remain hidden with current methods. Using the adenine-sensing riboswitch aptamer as a model, we provide strong evidence for a rate-limiting folding step of the aptamer domain being modulated through ligand binding, a feature that is important for regulation of the controlled gene. In the absence of ligand, the rate-determining step is dominated by the formation of long-range key tertiary contacts between peripheral stem-loop elements. In contrast, when the adenine ligand interacts with partially folded messenger RNAs, the aptamer requires specifically bound Mg(2+) ions, as those observed in the crystal structure, to progress further towards the native form. Moreover, despite that the ligand-free and ligand-bound states are indistinguishable by FRET, their different stability against urea-induced denaturation allowed us to discriminate them, even when they coexist within a single FRET trajectory; a feature not accessible by existing methods.
Dalgarno, P. A., Bordello, J., Morris, R., St-Pierre, P., Dubé, A., Samuel, I. D. W., Lafontaine, D. A., & Penedo, J. C. (2013). Single-molecule chemical denaturation of riboswitches. Nucleic Acids Research. https://doi.org/10.1093/nar/gkt128