During the last 15 years, scientists have developed methods that permit the direct mechanical manipulation of individual molecules. Using this approach, they have begun to investigate the effect of force and torque in chemical and biochemical reactions. These studies span from the study of the mechanical properties of macromolecules, to the characterization of molecular motors, to the mechanical unfolding of individual proteins and RNA. Here I present a review of some of our most recent results using mechanical force to unfold individual molecules of RNA. These studies make it possible to follow in real time the trajectory of each molecule as it unfolds and characterize the various intermediates of the reaction. Moreover, if the process takes place reversibly it is possible to extract both kinetic and thermodynamic information from these experiments at the same time that we characterize the forces that maintain the three-dimensional structure of the molecule in solution. These studies bring us closer to the biological unfolding processes in the cell as they simulate in vitro, the mechanical unfolding of RNAs carried out in the cell by helicases. If the unfolding process occurs irreversibly, I show here that single-molecule experiments can still provide equilibrium, thermodynamic information from non-equilibrium data by using recently discovered fluctuation theorems. Such theorems represent a bridge between equilibrium and non-equilibrium statistical mechanics. In fact, first derived in 1997, the first experimental demonstration of the validity of fluctuation theorems was obtained by unfolding mechanically a single molecule of RNA. It is perhaps a sign of the times that important physical results are these days used to extract information about biological systems and that biological systems are being used to test and confirm fundamental new laws in physics.
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