Accelerated RNA secondary structure design using preselected sequences for helices and loops

RNA. 2018 Nov;24(11):1555-1567. doi: 10.1261/rna.066324.118. Epub 2018 Aug 10.


Nucleic acids can be designed to be nano-machines, pharmaceuticals, or probes. RNA secondary structures can form the basis of self-assembling nanostructures. There are only four natural RNA bases, therefore it can be difficult to design sequences that fold to a single, specified structure because many other structures are often possible for a given sequence. One approach taken by state-of-the-art sequence design methods is to select sequences that fold to the specified structure using stochastic, iterative refinement. The goal of this work is to accelerate design. Many existing iterative methods select and refine sequences one base pair and one unpaired nucleotide at a time. Here, the hypothesis that sequences can be preselected in order to accelerate design was tested. To this aim, a database was built of helix sequences that demonstrate thermodynamic features found in natural sequences and that also have little tendency to cross-hybridize. Additionally, a database was assembled of RNA loop sequences with low helix-formation propensity and little tendency to cross-hybridize with either the helices or other loops. These databases of preselected sequences accelerate the selection of sequences that fold with minimal ensemble defect by replacing some of the trial and error of current refinement approaches. When using the database of preselected sequences as compared to randomly chosen sequences, sequences for natural structures are designed 36 times faster, and random structures are designed six times faster. The sequences selected with the aid of the database have similar ensemble defect as those sequences selected at random. The sequence database is part of RNAstructure package at

Keywords: RNA folding thermodynamics; RNA partition function; RNA sequence design; ensemble defect.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Algorithms
  • Computational Biology / methods
  • Databases, Nucleic Acid
  • Nucleic Acid Conformation*
  • RNA / chemistry*
  • RNA Folding
  • Sequence Analysis, RNA
  • Thermodynamics


  • RNA