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Open Access Research article

Evaluating the effect of disturbed ensemble distributions on SCFG based statistical sampling of RNA secondary structures

Anika Scheid* and Markus E Nebel

Author Affiliations

Department of Computer Science, University of Kaiserslautern, P.O. Box 3049, D-67653 Kaiserslautern, Germany

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BMC Bioinformatics 2012, 13:159  doi:10.1186/1471-2105-13-159

Published: 9 July 2012

Abstract

Background

Over the past years, statistical and Bayesian approaches have become increasingly appreciated to address the long-standing problem of computational RNA structure prediction. Recently, a novel probabilistic method for the prediction of RNA secondary structures from a single sequence has been studied which is based on generating statistically representative and reproducible samples of the entire ensemble of feasible structures for a particular input sequence. This method samples the possible foldings from a distribution implied by a sophisticated (traditional or length-dependent) stochastic context-free grammar (SCFG) that mirrors the standard thermodynamic model applied in modern physics-based prediction algorithms. Specifically, that grammar represents an exact probabilistic counterpart to the energy model underlying the Sfold software, which employs a sampling extension of the partition function (PF) approach to produce statistically representative subsets of the Boltzmann-weighted ensemble. Although both sampling approaches have the same worst-case time and space complexities, it has been indicated that they differ in performance (both with respect to prediction accuracy and quality of generated samples), where neither of these two competing approaches generally outperforms the other.

Results

In this work, we will consider the SCFG based approach in order to perform an analysis on how the quality of generated sample sets and the corresponding prediction accuracy changes when different degrees of disturbances are incorporated into the needed sampling probabilities. This is motivated by the fact that if the results prove to be resistant to large errors on the distinct sampling probabilities (compared to the exact ones), then it will be an indication that these probabilities do not need to be computed exactly, but it may be sufficient and more efficient to approximate them. Thus, it might then be possible to decrease the worst-case time requirements of such an SCFG based sampling method without significant accuracy losses. If, on the other hand, the quality of sampled structures can be observed to strongly react to slight disturbances, there is little hope for improving the complexity by heuristic procedures. We hence provide a reliable test for the hypothesis that a heuristic method could be implemented to improve the time scaling of RNA secondary structure prediction in the worst-case – without sacrificing much of the accuracy of the results.

Conclusions

Our experiments indicate that absolute errors generally lead to the generation of useless sample sets, whereas relative errors seem to have only small negative impact on both the predictive accuracy and the overall quality of resulting structure samples. Based on these observations, we present some useful ideas for developing a time-reduced sampling method guaranteeing an acceptable predictive accuracy. We also discuss some inherent drawbacks that arise in the context of approximation. The key results of this paper are crucial for the design of an efficient and competitive heuristic prediction method based on the increasingly accepted and attractive statistical sampling approach. This has indeed been indicated by the construction of prototype algorithms.