MicroRNAs control gene expression by post-transcriptional down-regulation of their target mRNAs. Complementarity between the seed region (nucleotides 2-8) of a microRNA and the 3′-UTR of its target mRNA is the key determinant in recognition. However, the structural basis of the ability of the seed region to dominate target recognition in eukaryotic argonaute complexes has not been directly demonstrated. To better understand this problem, we performed chemical probing of microRNAs held in native argonaute-containing complexes isolated from Caenorhabditis elegans. Direct probing of the RNA backbone in isolated native microRNP complexes shows that the conformation of the seed region is uniquely constrained, while the rest of the microRNA structure is conformationally flexible. Probing the Watson-Crick edges of the bases shows that bases 2-4 are largely inaccessible to solvent, while seed region bases 5-8 are readily modified; collectively our probing results suggest a model in which these bases are primed for initiating base pairing with the target mRNA. In addition, an unusual DMS reactivity with U at position 6 is observed. We propose that interaction of miRNAs with argonaute proteins pre-organizes the structure of the seed sequence for specific recognition of target mRNAs.
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