Sequence-dependent RNA helix conformational preferences predictably impact tertiary structure formation

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2019 Aug 20;116(34):16847-16855. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1901530116. Epub 2019 Aug 2.


Structured RNAs and RNA complexes underlie biological processes ranging from control of gene expression to protein translation. Approximately 50% of nucleotides within known structured RNAs are folded into Watson-Crick (WC) base pairs, and sequence changes that preserve these pairs are typically assumed to preserve higher-order RNA structure and binding of macromolecule partners. Here, we report that indirect effects of the helix sequence on RNA tertiary stability are, in fact, significant but are nevertheless predictable from a simple computational model called RNAMake-∆∆G. When tested through the RNA on a massively parallel array (RNA-MaP) experimental platform, blind predictions for >1500 variants of the tectoRNA heterodimer model system achieve high accuracy (rmsd 0.34 and 0.77 kcal/mol for sequence and length changes, respectively). Detailed comparison of predictions to experiments support a microscopic picture of how helix sequence changes subtly modulate conformational fluctuations at each base-pair step, which accumulate to impact RNA tertiary structure stability. Our study reveals a previously overlooked phenomenon in RNA structure formation and provides a framework of computation and experiment for understanding helix conformational preferences and their impact across biological RNA and RNA-protein assemblies.

Keywords: RNA energetics; blind prediction; high-throughput data; indirect readout.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Base Pairing
  • Base Sequence
  • Models, Molecular
  • Nucleic Acid Conformation*
  • RNA / chemistry*
  • RNA / genetics*
  • RNA Stability
  • Thermodynamics


  • RNA