Binding of two Mg2+ and two H+ ions influences the self-cleavage activity of the genomic HDV ribozyme. The positioning of these four ligands and their thermodynamic linkage are not fully resolved. Protonated C41 engages in a base triple, whereas protonated C75 has been implicated as an acid-base catalyst in bond cleavage. Prior studies led to the identification of one structural inner-sphere ion and one catalytic outer-sphere ion. In the present study, the contributions of the C41 base triple to the metal ion- and pH-dependence of the reaction are examined. Experiments were conducted on a CG to UA double mutant (DM), which changes the base triple to one involving an unprotonated C41. Below pH 6, the DM has a steeper dependence on pH than the wild-type (WT), consistent with a single protonation misfolding the core; this conclusion is also supported by thermal denaturation studies. Between pH 6 and 8, the WT and DM display nearly identical catalytic metal ion and H+ binding profiles. In contrast, over the same pH range, the WT and DM have distinct structural ion binding profiles; for the WT, binding is favored at lower pH, whereas the DM shows no pH dependence. These data localize the structural ion to the vicinity of the C41 motif. An overall model is presented that accommodates binding affinity, coupling, and positioning of the two metal ions and the two protons within the ribozyme. The data suggest that a protonated base triple allows the WT ribozyme to maintain appreciable activity at acidic pH, which could play an important role in the life cycle of the virus.
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