Sukjin S. Jang, Sarah Dubnik, Jason Hon, Björn Hellenkamp, David G. Lynall, Kenneth L. Shepard, Colin Nuckolls and Ruben L. Gonzalez, Jr. Characterizing the Conformational Free-Energy Landscape of RNA Stem-Loops Using Single-Molecule Field-Effect Transistors. December 22, 2022 J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2023, 145, 1, 402–412

We have developed and used single-molecule field-effect transistors (smFETs) to characterize the conformational free-energy landscape of RNA stem-loops. Stem-loops are one of the most common RNA structural motifs and serve as building blocks for the formation of complex RNA structures. Given their prevalence and integral role in RNA folding, the kinetics of stem-loop (un)folding has been extensively characterized using both experimental and computational approaches. Interestingly, these studies have reported vastly disparate timescales of (un)folding, which has been interpreted as evidence that (un)folding of even simple stem-loops occurs on a highly rugged conformational energy landscape. Because smFETs do not rely on fluorophore reporters of conformation or mechanical (un)folding forces, they provide a unique approach that has allowed us to directly monitor tens of thousands of (un)folding events of individual stem-loops at a 200 μs time resolution. Our results show that under our experimental conditions, stem-loops (un)fold over a 1–200 ms timescale during which they transition between ensembles of unfolded and folded conformations, the latter of which is composed of at least two sub-populations. The 1–200 ms timescale of (un)folding we observe here indicates that smFETs report on complete (un)folding trajectories in which unfolded conformations of the RNA spend long periods of time wandering the free-energy landscape before sampling one of several misfolded conformations or the natively folded conformation. Our findings highlight the extremely rugged landscape on which even the simplest RNA structural elements fold and demonstrate that smFETs are a unique and powerful approach for characterizing the conformational free-energy of RNA.