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J Mol Biol. 2005 Mar 18;347(1):53-69. Epub 2005 Jan 12.

Extracting stacking interaction parameters for RNA from the data set of native structures.

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Biophysics Program, Institute for Physical Science and Technology, University of Maryland, College Park, MD 20742, USA.


A crucial step in the determination of the three-dimensional native structures of RNA is the prediction of their secondary structures, which are stable independent of the tertiary fold. Accurate prediction of the secondary structure requires context-dependent estimates of the interaction parameters. We have exploited the growing database of natively folded RNA structures in the Protein Data Bank (PDB) to obtain stacking interaction parameters using a knowledge-based approach. Remarkably, the calculated values of the resulting statistical potentials (SPs) are in excellent agreement with the parameters determined using measurements in small oligonucleotides. We validate the SPs by predicting 74% of the base-pairs in a dataset of structures using the ViennaRNA package. Interestingly, this number is similar to that obtained using the measured thermodynamic parameters. We also tested the efficacy of the SP in predicting secondary structure by using gapless threading, which we advocate as an alternative method for rapidly predicting RNA structures. For RNA molecules with less than 700 nucleotides, about 70% of the native base-pairs are correctly predicted. As a further validation of the SPs we calculated Z-scores, which measure the relative stability of the native state with respect to a manifold of higher free energy states. The computed Z-scores agree with estimates made using calorimetric measurements for a few RNA molecules. Structural analysis was used to rationalize the success and failures of SP and experimentally determined parameters. First, from the near perfect linear relationship between the number of native base-pairs and sequence length, we show that nearly 46% of nucleotides are not in stacks. Second, by analyzing the suboptimal structures that are generated in gapless threading we show that the SPs and experimentally determined parameters are most successful in predicting stacks that end in hairpins. These results show that further improvement in secondary structure prediction requires reliable estimates of interaction parameters for loops, bulges, and stacks that do not end in hairpins.

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