Self-cleaving RNAs have recently been identified in mammalian genomes. A small ribozyme related in structure to the hepatitis delta virus (HDV) ribozyme occurs in a number of mammals, including chimpanzees and humans, within an intron of the CPEB3 gene. The catalytic mechanisms for the CPEB3 and HDV ribozymes appear to be similar, generating cleavage products with 5′-hydroxyl and 2′,3′-cyclic phosphate termini; nonetheless, the cleavage rate reported for the CPEB3 ribozyme is more than 6000-fold slower than for the fastest HDV ribozyme. Herein, we use full-length RNA and cotranscriptional self-cleavage assays to compare reaction rates among human CPEB3, chimp CPEB3, and HDV ribozymes. Our data reveal that a single base change of the upstream flanking sequence, which sequesters an intrinsically weak P1.1 pairing in a misfold, increases the rate of the wild-type human CPEB3 ribozyme by ∼250-fold; thus, the human ribozyme is intrinsically fast-reacting. Secondary structure determination and native gel analyses reveal that the cleaved population of the CPEB3 ribozyme has a single, secondary structure that closely resembles the HDV ribozyme. In contrast, the precleavage population of the CPEB3 ribozyme appears to have a more diverse secondary structure, possibly reflecting misfolding with the upstream sequence and dynamics intrinsic to the ribozyme. Prior identification of expressed sequence tags (ESTs) in human cells indicated that cleavage activity of the human ribozyme is tissue-specific. It is therefore possible that cellular factors interact with regions upstream of the CPEB3 ribozyme to unmask its high intrinsic reactivity.
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