Linking the branchpoint helix to a newly found receptor allows lariat formation by a group II intron.
Splicing of mRNA precursors requires a complex and dynamic set of RNA-RNA base-pairing interactions in which the U2 and U6 snRNAs play central roles. Using a genetic suppression assay, we refine and extend a U2-U6 snRNA structure that may comprise the catalytic center of the spliceosome. We first show that a critical U2-U6 helix proven in yeast, helix Ia, is also essential for mammalian splicing. Mutations in the adjacent helix Ib, however, cannot be similarly suppressed, and relevant residues in both U2 and U6 are shown to participate in intramolecular, rather than intermolecular, base-pairing. We next demonstrate the requirement for a novel U2-U6 helix, helix III, which involves bases extending 3' from the branch site recognition sequence in U2 and 5' from an evolutionarily invariant sequence in U6 implicated previously in 5' splice site recognition. This configuration suggests that helix III may help juxtapose the pre-mRNA 5' splice site and branch site. We provide evidence for this by demonstrating that a branch site mutation can be suppressed by a mutation in the 5' splice site, provided that compensatory changes are made in the appropriate bases in U2 and U6. Our results provide new insights into how U2 and U6 snRNAs interact with each other and with the pre-mRNA to initiate the first catalytic step in splicing.