From mechanical folding trajectories to intrinsic energy landscapes of biopolymers.
By exerting mechanical force, it is possible to unfold/refold RNA molecules one at a time. In a small range of forces, an RNA molecule can hop between the folded and the unfolded state with force-dependent kinetic rates. Here, we introduce a mesoscopic model to analyze the hopping kinetics of RNA hairpins in an optical tweezers setup. The model includes different elements of the experimental setup (beads, handles, and RNA sequence) and limitations of the instrument (time lag of the force-feedback mechanism and finite bandwidth of data acquisition). We investigated the influence of the instrument on the measured hopping rates. Results from the model are in good agreement with the experiments reported in the companion article. The comparison between theory and experiments allowed us to infer the values of the intrinsic molecular rates of the RNA hairpin alone and to search for the optimal experimental conditions to do the measurements. We conclude that the longest handles and softest traps that allow detection of the folding/unfolding signal (handles approximately 5-10 Kbp and traps approximately 0.03 pN/nm) represent the best conditions to obtain the intrinsic molecular rates. The methodology and rationale presented here can be applied to other experimental setups and other molecules.