U6 snRNA (small nuclear RNA), one of five RNA molecules that are required for the essential process of pre-mRNA splicing, is notable for its high level of sequence conservation and the important role it is thought to play in the splicing reaction. Nevertheless, the secondary structure of U6 in the free snRNP (small nuclear ribonucleoprotein) form has remained elusive, with predictions changing substantially over the years. In the present review we discuss the evidence for existing models and critically evaluate a fundamental assumption of these models, namely whether the important 3′ ISL (3′ internal stem–loop) is present in the free U6 particle, as well as in the active splicing complex. We compare existing models of free U6 with a newly proposed model lacking the 3′ ISL and evaluate the implications of the new model for the structure and function of U6's base-pairing partner U4 snRNA. Intriguingly, the new model predicts a role for U4 that was unanticipated previously, namely as an activator of U6 for assembly into the splicing machinery.

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