General base catalysis for cleavage by the active-site cytosine of the hepatitis delta virus ribozyme: QM/MM calculations establish chemical feasibility
The hepatitis delta virus (HDV) ribozyme is an RNA motif embedded in human pathogenic HDV RNA. Previous experimental studies have established that the active-site nucleotide C75 is essential for self-cleavage of the ribozyme, although its exact catalytic role in the process remains debated. Structural data from X-ray crystallography generally indicate that C75 acts as the general base that initiates catalysis by deprotonating the 2'-OH nucleophile at the cleavage site, while a hydrated magnesium ion likely protonates the 5'-oxygen leaving group. In contrast, some mechanistic studies support the role of C75 acting as general acid and thus being protonated before the reaction. We report combined quantum chemical/molecular mechanical calculations for the C75 general base pathway, utilizing the available structural data for the wild type HDV genomic ribozyme as a starting point. Several starting configurations differing in magnesium ion placement were considered and both one-dimensional and two-dimensional potential energy surface scans were used to explore plausible reaction paths. Our calculations show that C75 is readily capable of acting as the general base, in concert with the hydrated magnesium ion as the general acid. We identify a most likely position for the magnesium ion, which also suggests it acts as a Lewis acid. The calculated energy barrier of the proposed mechanism, similar to 20 kcal/mol, would lower the reaction barrier by similar to 15 kcal/mol compared with the uncatalyzed reaction and is in good agreement with experimental data.