A New Way to See RNA

Q Rev Biophys. 2011 Nov;44(4):433-66. doi: 10.1017/S0033583511000059. Epub 2011 May 18.


Unlike proteins, the RNA backbone has numerous degrees of freedom (eight, if one counts the sugar pucker), making RNA modeling, structure building and prediction a multidimensional problem of exceptionally high complexity. And yet RNA tertiary structures are not infinite in their structural morphology; rather, they are built from a limited set of discrete units. In order to reduce the dimensionality of the RNA backbone in a physically reasonable way, a shorthand notation was created that reduced the RNA backbone torsion angles to two (η and θ, analogous to φ and ψ in proteins). When these torsion angles are calculated for nucleotides in a crystallographic database and plotted against one another, one obtains a plot analogous to a Ramachandran plot (the η/θ plot), with highly populated and unpopulated regions. Nucleotides that occupy proximal positions on the plot have identical structures and are found in the same units of tertiary structure. In this review, we describe the statistical validation of the η/θ formalism and the exploration of features within the η/θ plot. We also describe the application of the η/θ formalism in RNA motif discovery, structural comparison, RNA structure building and tertiary structure prediction. More than a tool, however, the η/θ formalism has provided new insights into RNA structure itself, revealing its fundamental components and the factors underlying RNA architectural form.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cluster Analysis
  • Computer Simulation
  • Databases, Nucleic Acid
  • Humans
  • Models, Molecular*
  • Molecular Structure
  • Nucleic Acid Conformation*
  • Nucleotides / chemistry
  • RNA / chemistry*


  • Nucleotides
  • RNA