rawMSA: End-to-end Deep Learning using raw Multiple Sequence Alignments

PLoS One. 2019 Aug 15;14(8):e0220182. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0220182. eCollection 2019.


In the last decades, huge efforts have been made in the bioinformatics community to develop machine learning-based methods for the prediction of structural features of proteins in the hope of answering fundamental questions about the way proteins function and their involvement in several illnesses. The recent advent of Deep Learning has renewed the interest in neural networks, with dozens of methods being developed taking advantage of these new architectures. However, most methods are still heavily based pre-processing of the input data, as well as extraction and integration of multiple hand-picked, and manually designed features. Multiple Sequence Alignments (MSA) are the most common source of information in de novo prediction methods. Deep Networks that automatically refine the MSA and extract useful features from it would be immensely powerful. In this work, we propose a new paradigm for the prediction of protein structural features called rawMSA. The core idea behind rawMSA is borrowed from the field of natural language processing to map amino acid sequences into an adaptively learned continuous space. This allows the whole MSA to be input into a Deep Network, thus rendering pre-calculated features such as sequence profiles and other features calculated from MSA obsolete. We showcased the rawMSA methodology on three different prediction problems: secondary structure, relative solvent accessibility and inter-residue contact maps. We have rigorously trained and benchmarked rawMSA on a large set of proteins and have determined that it outperforms classical methods based on position-specific scoring matrices (PSSM) when predicting secondary structure and solvent accessibility, while performing on par with methods using more pre-calculated features in the inter-residue contact map prediction category in CASP12 and CASP13. Clearly demonstrating that rawMSA represents a promising development that can pave the way for improved methods using rawMSA instead of sequence profiles to represent evolutionary information in the coming years. Availability: datasets, dataset generation code, evaluation code and models are available at: https://bitbucket.org/clami66/rawmsa.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Computational Biology / methods*
  • Deep Learning*
  • Proteins / chemistry
  • Sequence Alignment*


  • Proteins

Grant support

BW was supported by Swedish Research Council grant, 2016-05369. CM was supported by The Foundation Blanceflor Boncompagni Ludovisi, née Bildt (no grant number). CM and BW were supported by Nvidia Corporation. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.