On the role of magnesium ions in RNA stability

Vinod K. Misra, David E. Draper

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

303 Scopus citations


Divalent cations, like magnesium, are crucial for the structural integrity and biological activity of RNA. In this article, we present a picture of how magnesium stabilizes a particular folded form of RNA. The overall stabilization of RNA by Mg2+ is given by the free energy of transferring RNA from a reference univalent salt solution to a mixed salt solution. This term has favorable energetic contributions from two distinct modes of binding: diffuse binding and site binding. In diffuse binding, fully hydrated Mg ions interact with the RNA via nonspecific long-range electrostatic interactions. In site binding, dehydrated Mg2+ interacts with anionic ligands specifically arranged by the RNA fold to act as coordinating ligands for the metal ion. Each of these modes has a strong coulombic contribution to binding; however, site binding is also characterized by substantial changes in ion salvation and other nonelectrostatic contributions. We will show how these energetic differences can be exploited to experimentally distinguish between these two classes of ions using analyses of binding polynomials. We survey a number of specific systems in which Mg2+-RNA interactions have been studied. In well-characterized systems such as certain tRNAs and some rRNA fragments these studies show that site-bound ions can play an important role in RNA stability. However, the crucial role of diffusely bound ions is also evident. We emphasize that diffuse binding can only be described rigorously by a model that accounts for long-range electrostatic forces. To fully understand the role of magnesium ions in RNA stability, theoretical models describing electrostatic forces in systems with complicated structures must be developed.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)113-135
Number of pages23
Issue number2-3
StatePublished - 1998


  • Divalent cations
  • Ion binding
  • Magnesium
  • RNA
  • RNA folding


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