Bovine pancreatic RNase A (ribonuclease A) aggregates to form various types of catalytically active oligomers during lyophilization from aqueous acetic acid solutions. Each oligomeric species is present in at least two conformational isomers. The structures of two dimers and one of the two trimers have been solved, while plausible models have been proposed for the structures of a second trimer and two tetrameric conformers. In this review, these structures, as well as the general conditions for RNase A oligomerization, based on the well known 3D (three-dimensional) domain-swapping mechanism, are described and discussed. Attention is also focused on some functional properties of the RNase A oligomers. Their enzymic activities, particularly their ability to degrade double-stranded RNAs and polyadenylate, are summarized and discussed. The same is true for the remarkable antitumour activity of the oligomers, displayed in vitro and in vivo, in contrast with monomeric RNase A, which lacks these activities. The RNase A multimers also show an aspermatogenic action, but lack any detectable embryotoxicity. The fact that both activity against double-stranded RNA and the antitumour action increase with the size of the oligomer suggests that these activities may share a common structural requirement, such as a high number or density of positive charges present on the RNase A oligomers.

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