The role of RNA conformation in RNA-protein recognition
Interactions between protein and RNA play a key role in many biological processes in the gene expression pathway. Those interactions are mediated through a variety of RNA-binding protein domains, among them the highly abundant RNA recognition motif (RRM). Here we studied protein-RNA complexes from different RNA binding domain families solved by NMR and x-ray crystallography. Characterizing the structural properties of the RNA at the binding interfaces revealed an unexpected number of nucleotides with unusual RNA conformations, specifically found in RNA-RRM complexes. Moreover, we observed that the RNA nucleotides that are directly involved in interactions with the RRM domains, via hydrogen bonds and hydrophobic contacts, are significantly enriched with unique RNA conformations. Further examination of the sequences binding the RRM domain showed a preference for G nucleotides in syn conformation to precede or to follow U nucleotides in the anti-conformation, and U nucleotides in C2' endo conformation to precede U and G nucleotides possessing the more common C3' endo conformation. These findings imply a possible mode of RNA recognition by the RRM domains which enables the recognition of a wide variety of different RNA sequences and shapes. Overall, this study suggests an additional way by which the RRM domain recognizes its RNA target, involving a conformational readout.