Base-pair ambiguity and the kinetics of RNA folding

Zhou, Guangyao; Loper, Jackson; Geman, Stuart

A pairings of nucleotide sequences. Given this forbidding free-energy landscape, mechanisms have evolved that contribute to a directed and efficient folding process, including catalytic proteins and error-detecting chaperones. Among structural RNA molecules we make a distinction between “bound” molecules, which are active as part of ribonucleoprotein (RNP) complexes, and “unbound,” with physiological functions performed without necessarily being bound in RNP complexes. We hypothesized that unbound molecules, lacking the partnering structure of a protein, would be more vulnerable than bound molecules to kinetic traps that compete with native stem structures. We defined an “ambiguity index”—a normalized function of the primary and secondary structure of an individual molecule that measures the number of kinetic traps available to nucleotide sequences that are paired in the native structure, presuming that unbound molecules would have lower indexes. The ambiguity index depends on the purported secondary structure, and was computed under both the comparative (“gold standard”) and an equilibrium-based prediction which approximates the minimum free energy (MFE) structure. Arguing that kinetically accessible metastable structures might be more biologically relevant than thermodynamic equilibrium structures, we also hypothesized that MFE-derived ambiguities would be less effective in separating bound and unbound molecules.

We have introduced an intuitive and easily computed function of primary and secondary structures that measures the availability of complementary sequences that could disrupt the formation of native stems on a given molecule—an ambiguity index. Using comparative secondary structures, the ambiguity index is systematically smaller among unbound than bound molecules, as expected. Furthermore, the effect is lost when the presumably more accurate comparative structure is replaced instead by the MFE structure.

A statistical analysis of the relationship between the primary and secondary structures of non-coding RNA molecules suggests that stem-disrupting kinetic traps are substantially less prevalent in molecules not participating in RNP complexes. In that this distinction is apparent under the comparative but not the MFE secondary structure, the results highlight a possible deficiency in structure predictions when based upon assumptions of thermodynamic equilibrium.


  • thumnail for 12859_2019_Article_3303.pdf 12859_2019_Article_3303.pdf application/pdf 602 KB Download File

Also Published In

BMC Bioinformatics

More About This Work

Published Here
September 22, 2023


Non-coding RNA, RNA folding kinetics, Comparative secondary structure, Minimum free energy, Thermodynamic equilibrium, Self-splicing introns, Ribonucleoproteins