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A comparison of the folding kinetics of a small, artificially selected DNA aptamer with those of equivalently simple naturally occurring proteins

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The folding of larger proteins generally differs from the folding of similarly large nucleic acids in the number and stability of the intermediates involved. To date, however, no similar comparison has been made between the folding of smaller proteins, which typically fold without well-populated intermediates, and the folding of small, simple nucleic acids. In response, in this study, we compare the folding of a 38-base DNA aptamer with the folding of a set of equivalently simple proteins. We find that, as is true for the large majority of simple, single domain proteins, the aptamer folds through a concerted, millisecond-scale process lacking well-populated intermediates. Perhaps surprisingly, the observed folding rate falls within error of a previously described relationship between the folding kinetics of single-domain proteins and their native state topology. Likewise, similarly to single-domain proteins, the aptamer exhibits a relatively low urea-derived Tanford β, suggesting that its folding transition state is modestly ordered. In contrast to this, however, and in contrast to the behavior of proteins, ϕ-value analysis suggests that the aptamer's folding transition state is highly ordered, a discrepancy that presumably reflects the markedly more important role that secondary structure formation plays in the folding of nucleic acids. This difference notwithstanding, the similarities that we observe between the two-state folding of single-domain proteins and the two-state folding of this similarly simple DNA presumably reflect properties that are universal in the folding of all sufficiently cooperative heteropolymers irrespective of their chemical details.

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