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Open Access Methodology article

Fine-tuning structural RNA alignments in the twilight zone

Andreas Bremges, Stefanie Schirmer and Robert Giegerich*

Author Affiliations

Faculty of Technology, Bielefeld University, 33615 Bielefeld, Germany

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BMC Bioinformatics 2010, 11:222  doi:10.1186/1471-2105-11-222

Published: 30 April 2010

Abstract

Background

A widely used method to find conserved secondary structure in RNA is to first construct a multiple sequence alignment, and then fold the alignment, optimizing a score based on thermodynamics and covariance. This method works best around 75% sequence similarity. However, in a "twilight zone" below 55% similarity, the sequence alignment tends to obscure the covariance signal used in the second phase. Therefore, while the overall shape of the consensus structure may still be found, the degree of conservation cannot be estimated reliably.

Results

Based on a combination of available methods, we present a method named planACstar for improving structure conservation in structural alignments in the twilight zone. After constructing a consensus structure by alignment folding, planACstar abandons the original sequence alignment, refolds the sequences individually, but consistent with the consensus, aligns the structures, irrespective of sequence, by a pure structure alignment method, and derives an improved sequence alignment from the alignment of structures, to be re-submitted to alignment folding, etc.. This circle may be iterated as long as structural conservation improves, but normally, one step suffices.

Conclusions

Employing the tools ClustalW, RNAalifold, and RNAforester, we find that for sequences with 30-55% sequence identity, structural conservation can be improved by 10% on average, with a large variation, measured in terms of RNAalifold's own criterion, the structure conservation index.