We describe a conceptual framework for understanding the way large RNA molecules fold based on the notion that their free-energy landscape is rugged. A key prediction of our theory is that RNA folding can be described by the kinetic partitioning mechanism (KPM). According to KPM a small fraction of molecules folds rapidly to the native state whereas the remaining fraction is kinetically trapped in a low free-energy non-native state. This model provides a unified description of the way RNA and proteins fold. Single-molecule experiments on ribozyme, which directly validate our theory, are analyzed using KPM. We also describe the earliest events that occur on microsecond time scales in RNA folding. These must involve collapse of RNA molecules that are mediated by counterion-condensation. Estimates of time scales for the initial events in RNA folding are provided for the ribozyme.


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  • Article Type: Review Article
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