RNA molecules play critical roles in many cellular processes. Traditionally viewed as genetic messengers, RNA molecules were recently discovered to have diverse functions related to gene regulation and expression. RNA also has great potential as a therapeutic and a tool for further investigation of gene regulation. Metal ions are an integral part of RNA structure and should be considered in any experimental or theoretical study of RNA. Here, we report a multidisciplinary approach that combines anomalous small-angle x-ray scattering and molecular-dynamics (MD) simulations with explicit solvent and ions around RNA. From experiment and simulation results, we find excellent agreement in the number and distribution of excess monovalent and divalent ions around a short RNA duplex. Although similar agreement can be obtained from a continuum description of the solvent and mobile ions (by solving the Poisson-Boltzmann equation and accounting for finite ion size), the use of MD is easily extended to flexible RNA systems with thermal fluctuations. Therefore, we also model a short RNA pseudoknot and find good agreement between the MD results and the experimentally derived solution structures. Surprisingly, both deviate from crystal structure predictions. These favorable comparisons of experiment and simulations encourage work on RNA in all-atom dynamic models.
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