Folding path of P5abc RNA involves direct coupling of secondary and tertiary structures.
Folding mechanisms in which secondary structures are stabilized through the formation of tertiary interactions are well documented in protein folding but challenge the folding hierarchy normally assumed for RNA. However, it is increasingly clear that RNA could fold by a similar mechanism. P5abc, a small independently folding tertiary domain of the Tetrahymena thermophila group I ribozyme, is known to fold by a secondary structure rearrangement involving helix P5c. However, the extent of this rearrangement and the precise stage of folding that triggers it are unknown. We use experiments and simulations to show that the P5c helix switches to the native secondary structure late in the folding pathway and is directly coupled to the formation of tertiary interactions in the A-rich bulge. P5c mutations show that the switch in P5c is not rate-determining and suggest that non-native interactions in P5c aid folding rather than impede it. Our study illustrates that despite significant differences in the building blocks of proteins and RNA, there may be common ways in which they self-assemble.