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Open Access Highly Accessed Methodology article

Fast online and index-based algorithms for approximate search of RNA sequence-structure patterns

Fernando Meyer, Stefan Kurtz and Michael Beckstette*

Author Affiliations

Center for Bioinformatics, University of Hamburg, Bundesstrasse 43, Hamburg 20146, Germany

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BMC Bioinformatics 2013, 14:226  doi:10.1186/1471-2105-14-226

Published: 17 July 2013



It is well known that the search for homologous RNAs is more effective if both sequence and structure information is incorporated into the search. However, current tools for searching with RNA sequence-structure patterns cannot fully handle mutations occurring on both these levels or are simply not fast enough for searching large sequence databases because of the high computational costs of the underlying sequence-structure alignment problem.


We present new fast index-based and online algorithms for approximate matching of RNA sequence-structure patterns supporting a full set of edit operations on single bases and base pairs. Our methods efficiently compute semi-global alignments of structural RNA patterns and substrings of the target sequence whose costs satisfy a user-defined sequence-structure edit distance threshold. For this purpose, we introduce a new computing scheme to optimally reuse the entries of the required dynamic programming matrices for all substrings and combine it with a technique for avoiding the alignment computation of non-matching substrings. Our new index-based methods exploit suffix arrays preprocessed from the target database and achieve running times that are sublinear in the size of the searched sequences. To support the description of RNA molecules that fold into complex secondary structures with multiple ordered sequence-structure patterns, we use fast algorithms for the local or global chaining of approximate sequence-structure pattern matches. The chaining step removes spurious matches from the set of intermediate results, in particular of patterns with little specificity. In benchmark experiments on the Rfam database, our improved online algorithm is faster than the best previous method by up to factor 45. Our best new index-based algorithm achieves a speedup of factor 560.


The presented methods achieve considerable speedups compared to the best previous method. This, together with the expected sublinear running time of the presented index-based algorithms, allows for the first time approximate matching of RNA sequence-structure patterns in large sequence databases. Beyond the algorithmic contributions, we provide with RaligNAtor a robust and well documented open-source software package implementing the algorithms presented in this manuscript. The RaligNAtor software is available at webcite.