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Keywords:

  • molecular dynamics;
  • RNAi;
  • Argonaute;
  • guide-target mismatch;
  • binding-free energy

Abstract

Silencing in RNAi is strongly affected by guide-strand/target-mRNA mismatches. Target nucleation is thought to occur at positions 2–8 of the guide (“seed region”); successful hybridization in this region is the primary determinant of target-binding affinity and hence target cleavage. To define a molecular basis for the target sequence selectivity in RNAi, we studied all possible distinct single mismatches in seven positions of the seed region—a total of 21 substitutions. We report results from soft-core thermodynamic integration simulations to determine changes in targeting binding-free energies to Argonaute due to single mismatches in the guide strand, which arise during binding of an imperfectly matched target mRNA. In agreement with experiment, most mismatches impair target binding, consistent with a prominent role for binding affinity changes in RNAi sequence selectivity. Individual Argonaute residues located near the mismatched base pair are found to contribute significantly to binding affinity changes. We also use this methodology to analyze the mismatch-dependent free energy changes for dissociation of a DNA•RNA hybrid from Argonaute, as a model for the escape of miRNAs from the silencing pathway. Several mismatched sequences of the miRNA have increased affinity to Argonaute, implying that some mismatches may reduce the probability for escape. Furthermore, calculations of base-substitution-dependent free energy changes for binding ssDNA reveal mild sequence sensitivity as expected for guide strand binding to Argonaute. Our findings give a thermodynamic basis for RNAi target sequence selectivity and suggest that miRNA mismatches may increase silencing effectiveness and thus could be evolutionarily advantageous. Proteins 2012; © 2011 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.