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Open Access Highly Accessed Open Badges Research article

Detection of non-coding RNAs on the basis of predicted secondary structure formation free energy change

Andrew V Uzilov123, Joshua M Keegan123 and David H Mathews123*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Biochemistry & Biophysics, University of Rochester Medical Center, 601 Elmwood Avenue, Box 712, Rochester, New York 14642, USA

2 Department of Biostatistics & Computational Biology, University of Rochester Medical Center, 601 Elmwood Avenue, Box 712, Rochester, New York 14642, USA

3 Center for Pediatric Biomedical Research, University of Rochester Medical Center, 601 Elmwood Avenue, Box 712, Rochester, New York 14642, USA

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BMC Bioinformatics 2006, 7:173  doi:10.1186/1471-2105-7-173

Published: 27 March 2006



Non-coding RNAs (ncRNAs) have a multitude of roles in the cell, many of which remain to be discovered. However, it is difficult to detect novel ncRNAs in biochemical screens. To advance biological knowledge, computational methods that can accurately detect ncRNAs in sequenced genomes are therefore desirable. The increasing number of genomic sequences provides a rich dataset for computational comparative sequence analysis and detection of novel ncRNAs.


Here, Dynalign, a program for predicting secondary structures common to two RNA sequences on the basis of minimizing folding free energy change, is utilized as a computational ncRNA detection tool. The Dynalign-computed optimal total free energy change, which scores the structural alignment and the free energy change of folding into a common structure for two RNA sequences, is shown to be an effective measure for distinguishing ncRNA from randomized sequences. To make the classification as a ncRNA, the total free energy change of an input sequence pair can either be compared with the total free energy changes of a set of control sequence pairs, or be used in combination with sequence length and nucleotide frequencies as input to a classification support vector machine. The latter method is much faster, but slightly less sensitive at a given specificity. Additionally, the classification support vector machine method is shown to be sensitive and specific on genomic ncRNA screens of two different Escherichia coli and Salmonella typhi genome alignments, in which many ncRNAs are known. The Dynalign computational experiments are also compared with two other ncRNA detection programs, RNAz and QRNA.


The Dynalign-based support vector machine method is more sensitive for known ncRNAs in the test genomic screens than RNAz and QRNA. Additionally, both Dynalign-based methods are more sensitive than RNAz and QRNA at low sequence pair identities. Dynalign can be used as a comparable or more accurate tool than RNAz or QRNA in genomic screens, especially for low-identity regions. Dynalign provides a method for discovering ncRNAs in sequenced genomes that other methods may not identify. Significant improvements in Dynalign runtime have also been achieved.