Secondary structural motifs play essential roles in the folding and function of RNA and DNA molecules. Previous work from our lab compared the folding of small DNA and RNA hairpin loops containing a sheared GA pair [Moody, E. M., Feerar, J. C., and Bevilacqua, P. C. (2004) Biochemistry 43, 7992-7998]. We found that the small DNA hairpins fold in a highly cooperative manner with indirect coupling, while their RNA counterparts fold in a much less cooperative fashion and display direct coupling. Herein, we extend this study to the double-stranded helix. We carried out double mutant cycles on base pairs having identical nearest-neighbor contexts but located in either external or internal helical registers. In the external register, both RNA and DNA exhibit extensive folding cooperativity between the penultimate and terminal base pair, which is independent of mismatch identity. In contrast, DNA exhibits virtually no folding cooperativity in the center of the helix, while RNA maintains substantial coupling, which is dependent on mismatch identity. Two models account for these non-nearest-neighbor effects: one involves the unfavorable entropy of helix initiation common to DNA and RNA, and the other involves steric and electrostatic strain peculiar to RNA. These data show that RNA can display cooperativity less than, greater than, or equal to that of DNA depending on context and position.
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