The maturation or A-protein gene of single-stranded RNA phage MS2 is preceded by a 130-nt long untranslated leader. When MS2 RNA folding is at equilibrium, the gene is untranslatable because the leader adopts a well-defined cloverleaf structure in which the Shine-Dalgarno (SD) sequence of the maturation gene is taken up in long-distance base pairing with an upstream complementary sequence (UCS). Synthesis of the A-protein takes place transiently while the RNA is synthesized from the minus strand. This requires that formation of the inhibitory cloverleaf is slow. In vitro, the folding delay was on the order of minutes. Here, we present evidence that this postponed folding is caused by the formation of a metastable intermediate. This intermediate is a small local hairpin that contains the UCS in its loop, thereby preventing or slowing down its pairing with the SD sequence. Mutants in which the small hairpin could not be formed made no detectable amounts of A-protein and were barely viable. Apparently, here the cloverleaf formed quicker than ribosomes could bind. On the other hand, mutants in which the small intermediary hairpin was stabilized produced more A-protein than wild type and were viable. One hardly growing mutant that could not form the metastable hairpin and did not make detectable amounts of A-protein was evolved. The emerging pseudo-revertant had selected two second site repressor mutations that allowed reconstruction of a variant of the metastable intermediate. The pseudo-revertant had also regained the capacity to produce the A-protein.
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