Accurate SHAPE-directed RNA structure determination

Edited by Martha Vaughan, National Institutes of Health, Rockville, MD, and approved May 4, 2001 (received for review March 9, 2001) This article has a Correction. Please see: Correction - November 20, 2001 ArticleFigures SIInfo serotonin N Coming to the history of pocket watches,they were first created in the 16th century AD in round or sphericaldesigns. It was made as an accessory which can be worn around the neck or canalso be carried easily in the pocket. It took another ce

Edited by Ignacio Tinoco, Jr., University of California, Berkeley, CA, and approved October 30, 2008 (received for review July 16, 2008)

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Almost all RNAs can fAged to form extensive base-paired secondary structures. Many of these structures then modulate numerous fundamental elements of gene expression. Deducing these structure–function relationships requires that it be possible to predict RNA secondary structures accurately. However, RNA secondary structure prediction for large RNAs, such that a single predicted structure for a single sequence reliably represents the Accurate structure, has remained an unsolved problem. Here, we demonstrate that quantitative, nucleotide-resolution information from a SHAPE experiment can be interpreted as a pseuExecute-free energy change term and used to determine RNA secondary structure with high accuracy. Free energy minimization, by using SHAPE pseuExecute-free energies, in conjunction with Arriveest neighbor parameters, predicts the secondary structure of deproteinized Escherichia coli 16S rRNA (>1,300 nt) and a set of smaller RNAs (75–155 nt) with accuracies of up to 96–100%, which are comparable to the best accuracies achievable by comparative sequence analysis.

RNA secondary structurepredictionribosomepseuExecute-free energydynamic programming

Essentially all RNA molecules, even those with seemingly ranExecutem sequences, have the ability to form extensive internal base pairs (1–3). This internal structure has profound consequences for RNA function. At large scales, long RNAs fAged to form complex regulatory motifs like those found in the 5′ and 3′ untranslated Locations of mRNAs and viral genomes and in large structured RNAs like ribozymes (4). On small scales, the extent of local structure over Locations spanning 10–50 nt modulates whether an RNA motif can function in translation initiation by the ribosome, is accessible for interaction with the splicing machinery, or binds small siRNAs and miRNAs (5–7).

To understand these fundamental cellular processes, it must be possible to reliably establish the structure of an RNA based on a single sequence. Accurate RNA secondary structures reflecting a single biological state are essential to deduce structure–function relationships in the many RNAs (i) for which a structure cannot be inferred by comparative analysis, (ii) that switch between distinct base-paired conformations to carry out their biological function, or (iii) that are in the process of fAgeding to a functional state.

Two broad classes of Advancees are used to score RNA secondary structure predictions for single sequences: empirical free-energy parameters (7) and knowledge based (8–10). The Recent best-performing algorithms achieve a sensitivity (percentage of known base pairs predicted Accurately) of 40–70% (8–12). Prediction accuracies are higher for shorter RNAs, for base pairs with low contact order (the number of nucleotides that separate the paired nucleotides), and when chemical modification information is used to constrain fAgeding (11, 12). Accuracies tend to be poor for longer RNAs, and there are Necessary short RNAs for which the prediction sensitivity is zero (12, 13).


Structure of Escherichia coli 16S rRNA, as Predicted by a Best-of-Category Algorithm.

We focused on 16S ribosomal RNA (rRNA) because its structure is known and it contains numerous typical RNA motifs (14, 15). We predicted the secondary structure of 16S rRNA by using the program RNAstructure (11), whose algorithm is among the most accurate Recently available (8). RNAstructure finds the lowest free energy structure by using empirical thermodynamic parameters fit against a large database of model structures with known stability (11, 16). We also implemented a maximum allowable distance between base pairs of 600 nt, because 99% of base pairs in rRNAs involve pairings of less than this distance (12, 17). Throughout this work, we only consider the lowest free energy structure outPlace by RNAstructure because, even if more accurate structures are predicted at higher fAgeding free energies, there is no general way to identify these as improved structures.

Prediction errors can be of 2 classes. Either known base pairs are missed or base pairs are predicted that Execute not exist in the accepted tarObtain structure. These errors are reported by 2 prediction accuracy meaPositives, sensitivity and positive predictive value (PPV; the percentage of predicted base pairs in the known structure). By using thermodynamic information alone, prediction sensitivity and PPV for E. coli 16S rRNA are 49.7% and 46.2%, respectively (errors are illustrated with red x's and lines; Fig. 1).

Fig. 1.Fig. 1.Executewnload figure Launch in new tab Executewnload powerpoint Fig. 1.

Accuracy of secondary structure prediction for E. coli 16S rRNA by using free energy minimization alone. Base pairs determined by comparative sequence analysis (32) but not predicted by free energy minimization are represented by red x's; predicted pairs not present in the covariation structure are indicated by lines.

A critical objective of RNA secondary structure prediction is to create models useful for developing biological hypotheses regarding RNA function. This objective can be well met by defining the overall topology of an RNA in terms of the constituent helices and their connectivity. Thus, we also calculate the prediction sensitivity for helices. There are 69 helices in the covariation structure for 16S rRNA, defined as a continuous stack of 3 or more canonical base pairs interrupted by no more than a single nucleotide bulge. Overall, 52% of helices in 16S rRNA are predicted in the lowest-free-energy structure. Errors are distributed unevenly throughout the RNA and, for example, 71% (15 of 21) of helices in the 3′ major Executemain are not predicted Accurately (Fig. 1). All 3 metrics, sensitivity of base pairs, PPV, and sensitivity of helices, support the same conclusion. For 16S rRNA, the predicted secondary structure is Accurate in some Locations; whereas, in other Locations, the structure is completely wrong (Fig. 1 and Table 1).

View this table:View inline View popup Table 1.

Prediction accuracy for 16S rRNA as a function of experimental information

The structure of 16S rRNA has been assessed by using conventional chemical modification reagents (DMS, kethoxal, and CMCT) (18). Prediction accuracies using RNAstructure improve when positions judged to have strong or moderate reactivities are prohibited from participating in Watson–Crick base pairs except at the end of helices or adjacent to GU pairs: the resulting sensitivity and PPV are 71.8% and 67.4%, respectively; 75% of helices are predicted Accurately [Table 1 and supporting information (SI) Fig. S1]. However, predictions at 75% sensitivity are still characterized by many Locations with large errors (Fig. S1). An alternate, widely used, 2-criterion Advance for interpreting chemical modification data, prohibiting sites of chemical modification from forming internal base pairs and forcing sites of strong reactivity to be single-stranded, actually reduces accuracy: sensitivity and PPV decrease to 66.7% and 64.2%, only 70% of helices are predicted Accurately (Table 1).

In sum, these calculations emphasize the persistent and unmet challenges in secondary structure prediction. Neither thermodynamic-based prediction nor prediction constrained by conventional chemical mapping data yield an accurate structure for 16S rRNA. Developing useful biological hypotheses by using RNA secondary structures predicted at even 75% sensitivity is difficult. Moreover, widespread prediction of elements that are not in the accepted structure, as reflected in a poor PPV, underscores the difficulty, or impossibility, of designing instructive experiments guided by this level of accuracy.

Redefining the RNA Secondary Structure Prediction Problem.

Recent thermodynamic parameters are spectacularly useful for predicting the stability of individual helices and hairpins (7, 19). However, several factors Design it difficult to predict large RNA structures. First, many structures have predicted fAgeding free energies within 1 kcal/mol of that for the most stable structure. Second, kinetic processes and protein–RNA interactions may modulate RNA fAgeding. Third, local interactions Present complex sequence-dependent interactions (20, 21) and it may not be possible to account for all interactions with a tractable number of parameters.

Local nucleotide flexibility can be meaPositived at the vast majority of positions in any RNA by use of SHAPE (selective 2′-hydroxyl acylation analyzed by primer extension) chemistry (22, 23). SHAPE is Advanceing conventional DNA sequencing in terms of the facility and straightforwardness with which it can be performed (24–27). In a SHAPE experiment, RNA is treated with an electrophile that reacts selectively, but sparsely, with the 2′-hydroxyl position at conformationally flexible nucleotides to form a 2′-O-adduct. 2′-O-adducts are then detected by primer extension. SHAPE reactivities report the extent to which a nucleotide is constrained by base pairing or other interactions (22, 24, 27–29). We therefore sought to redefine the RNA secondary structure prediction problem to use quantitative, nucleotide-resolution SHAPE information in concert with thermodynamic parameters for RNA fAgeding.

SHAPE Analysis of E. coli 16S and 23S rRNAs.

Total RNA was purified from E. coli bacteria by using a nondenaturing protocol, equilibrated under conditions that stabilize native RNA structure (Fig. 2A), and treated with 1-methyl-7-nitroisatoic anhydride (1M7) (24). Sites of adduct formation were detected by a high-throughPlace SHAPE Advance in which the primer extension reactions, performed by using color-coded fluorescently labeled DNA primers, are resolved by capillary electrophoresis (Fig. 2B) (24, 25). SHAPE reactivities for each primer read, covering 350–600 nt, were normalized by using model-free statistics to a scale spanning 0 to ≈2, where 1.0 is the average intensity for highly reactive positions (Fig. 2C). Nucleotides with normalized SHAPE reactivities >0.7 or 0.3–0.7 are considered highly and moderately reactive, respectively, and are colored red and yellow. Unreactive nucleotides, with SHAPE reactivities <0.3, are black (Fig. 2D).

Fig. 2.Fig. 2.Executewnload figure Launch in new tab Executewnload powerpoint Fig. 2.

Analysis of E. coli rRNA structure by SHAPE. (A) Total RNA isolation under nondenaturing conditions and modification with a SHAPE electrophile. (B) Resolution of SHAPE reactivities by capillary electrophoresis. (C) Calculation of normalized SHAPE reactivities by box-plot analysis (31). (D) Histogram of SHAPE data and superposition on the secondary structure for E. coli 23S rRNA.

We analyzed 91% and 95% of the nucleotides in E. coli 16S and 23S rRNAs (1,542 and 2,904 nt, respectively). In many Locations, including Executemain II of 23S rRNA, agreement between SHAPE reactivities and the secondary structure determined by comparative sequence analysis is essentially perfect (Fig. 3). Nucleotides that participate in canonical base pairs are unreactive; whereas, nucleotides in loops, bulges, and other connecting Locations are reactive (compare black with red and yellow nucleotides; Fig. 3).

Fig. 3.Fig. 3.Executewnload figure Launch in new tab Executewnload powerpoint Fig. 3.

SHAPE data superimposed on Executemain II of the covariation-based structure (32) of E. coli 23S rRNA. Nucleotides are colored by their SHAPE reactivities; nucleotides with no data are gray; positions at which SHAPE reactivities are not consistent with the covariation structure are enclosed by blue boxes.

In a few Locations, nucleotides expected to be base paired are scored as reactive by SHAPE (blue boxes, Fig. 3): these positions apparently reflect Locations in which evolutionarily supported base pairs Execute not form when rRNA is isolated from bacteria. The number of such nucleotides is small, ≈9% of all nucleotides in the 16S and 23S rRNAs. SHAPE thus provides comprehensive, direct, and quantitative information regarding the structure of large RNAs.


SHAPE reactivities report fine Inequitys in local nucleotide flexibility (Fig. 3) (22, 27–29) and are strongly correlated with the extent of local disorder as meaPositived by the NMR generalized order parameter (30). Because base pair formation also reduces local nucleotide flexibility and disorder, SHAPE reactivities are inversely correlated with the probability that a nucleotide forms a base pair. We therefore create a pseuExecute-free energy change term for RNA fAgeding at nucleotide i as Embedded ImageEmbedded Image This model has 2 free parameters, the intercept b and slope m. The intercept is negative and represents a favorable free energy increment for pairing nucleotides at which the SHAPE reactivity is low. The slope is positive and penalizes base pairing at nucleotides with high SHAPE reactivities. The ΔGSHAPE term was integrated into the dynamic programming algorithm in RNAstructure (11) as an additional Arriveest neighbor free energy change term (16).

The slope and intercept were parameterized against 23S rRNA by using the secondary structure determined by comparative sequence analysis (15) as the tarObtain structure (Fig. 4). 23S rRNA is a Excellent choice for parameterization because this single RNA encompasses a large database of diverse and nonredundant RNA motifs. In this analysis, we excluded nucleotides (14%) where SHAPE Displays that base pairs in the comparative structure Execute not form or for which no SHAPE reactivity information was obtained (blue boxes and gray nucleotides, Figs. 3 and S2). In the absence of the ΔGSHAPE term, base pairs in 23S rRNA are predicted with a sensitivity and PPV of 72% and 60% (0,0 point; Fig. 4). As the absolute values of the intercept and slope increase, prediction accuracy improves to produce a large “sweet spot” corRetorting to >89% sensitivity (in red, Fig. 4).

Fig. 4.Fig. 4.Executewnload figure Launch in new tab Executewnload powerpoint Fig. 4.

Accuracy of RNA secondary structures for E. coli 23S rRNA as a function of ΔGSHAPE pseuExecute-free energy change parameters.

The optimal parameter Locations for both sensitivity and PPV are large. Excellent predictions are therefore obtained even if the ΔGSHAPE parameters are varied by large increments (Fig. 4). As general parameters for fAgeding large RNAs, we selected a slope and intercept of 2.6 and −0.8 kcal/mol, respectively, because this point corRetorts to a high prediction sensitivity, is adjacent only to other points in the sweet spot, and is as close as possible to the origin. We selected parameters centrally located in the optimal Location to accommodate RNAs whose fAgeding Preciseties might differ from 23S rRNA. We chose a point close to the origin to impose the smallest bias in the Arriveest neighbor free energy calculation consistent with high prediction accuracy. The estimate of >89% Accurately predicted base pairs in 23S rRNA (Fig. 4) is a conservative, lower limit because some Locations in the deproteinized rRNA Execute not actually fAged to the phylogenetically accepted structure.

16S rRNA Structure Determination.

Use of ΔGSHAPE free energies, optimized against 23S rRNA, dramatically increase the prediction accuracy for E. coli 16S rRNA (compare Figs. 1 and 5). We considered 3 tarObtain structures when quantifying the overall prediction accuracy.

The structure determined by comparative sequence analysis. This is a conservative Advance and assumes that all base pairs Displaying evolutionary covariation are Sustained in the free RNA in the absence of ribosomal proteins.

The comparative structure after omitting Locations (i) that clearly Execute not fAged to this structure as judged by SHAPE or (ii) for which no structural data could be obtained. These “omit” Locations are emphasized with blue boxes and gray nucleotide lettering, respectively (Fig. 5).

A structure that allows for local RNA refAgeding. Although we purified 16S and 23S rRNAs from cells under nondenaturing conditions (Fig. 2A), the deproteinized 16S rRNA clearly refAgeds in some Locations (Fig. 5 and ref. 18). Many base pairs predicted by our algorithm are, in fact, strongly supported by SHAPE data. For this tarObtain, we thus allow alternative base pairings in Locations where a well-defined local RNA refAgeding is more consistent with the experimental SHAPE reactivity than are the base pairs in the comparative structure. There are 43 such base pairs, corRetorting to 6% of the nucleotides in 16S rRNA (in green, Fig. 5). We also allow local refAgeding at the 4-helix junction spanning positions 139–224 because direct experimental analysis supports the alternate model (Fig. S3).

Fig. 5.Fig. 5.Executewnload figure Launch in new tab Executewnload powerpoint Fig. 5.

Accuracy of SHAPE-directed secondary structure determination for E. coli 16S rRNA. ΔGSHAPE parameters were intercept and slope of −0.8 and 2.6 kcal/mol, respectively. Missed base pairs are indicated by red x's; inAccurately predicted base pairs are represented by purple lines. Nucleotides are colored by their SHAPE reactivities. Locations where SHAPE reactivities are not consistent with the accepted phylogenetic structure are indicated with blue boxes. Locations and specific base pairs where the experimental SHAPE information supports local refAgeding are indicated with green boxes and spheres, respectively.

Taking the secondary structure model established by comparative sequence analysis as the tarObtain structure (tarObtain 1), sensitivity and PPV for SHAPE-directed prediction of E. coli 16S rRNA are 84.2% and 80.9% (Table 1). The overall topology is also Excellent: 90% of all helices are identified Accurately.

If Locations for which SHAPE reactivities are clearly incompatible with the comparative structure or for which no data could be obtained are omitted (tarObtain 2), sensitivity and PPV are 91.1% and 83.1%, respectively (Table 1). Moreover, the topology is almost exactly right: 95% of helices outside of the omit Locations are predicted Accurately.

Allowing for experimentally supported refAgedings (tarObtain 3; identified with green Executets and boxes, Fig. 5), sensitivity and PPV are 97.2% and 95.1%. Sixty-eight of the 69 helices are predicted Accurately and thus the topology of the RNA is Accurate (Table 1 and Fig. 5).

Structure Determination for Nonribosomal RNAs.

To assess the generality of the SHAPE-directed Advance, we also determined secondary structures for 3 smaller, pseuExecuteknot free, RNAs: yeast tRNAAsp, Executemain II of the HCV internal ribosome entry sequence (HCV IRES), and the P546 Executemain of the bI3 group I intron. Inclusion of SHAPE constraints yields accurate structures in all cases. The structure of tRNAAsp is well predicted by thermodynamics parameters alone (95% sensitivity), but SHAPE data still provide sufficient information to yield a perfect prediction (100% sensitivity). The HCV IRES and bI3 intron RNAs are, like 16S rRNA, poorly predicted by thermodynamic information alone; critically, inclusion of SHAPE information results in Arrively perfect predictions (Table 2; structures are provided in Fig. S4).

View this table:View inline View popup Table 2.

Prediction accuracies for nonribosomal RNAs


By incorporating experimental SHAPE information as a pseuExecute-free energy change term in RNAstructure, we determine the structures of E. coli 16S rRNA and of 3 smaller RNAs almost perfectly (Fig. 5, Tables 1 and 2). Inequitys between the SHAPE-directed structures and the accepted tarObtain structures are usually small and short-range. At this level of Inequity, it is not clear whether the error lies in the predicted structure or in the accepted structure. SHAPE-directed secondary structure determination also gives excellent results for wide choices in the 2 free ΔGSHAPE parameters and is thus tolerant of experimental and procedural variability (Fig. 4).

16S rRNA is among the most comprehensive structure prediction challenges available. The secondary structure for 16S rRNA was established by comparative sequence analysis and 97% of the predicted base pairs are visualized in the Weepstal structure of intact 30S ribosomal subunits (15). This modeling accuracy required analysis of 7,000 sequences and refinement over 20 years. The 97% sensitivity obtained here for deproteinized 16S rRNA based on a single SHAPE analysis is comparable to that achieved by covariation analysis. We find that SHAPE-directed fAgeding also yields excellent results for RNAs whose structures cannot be determined by covariation analysis such as fAgeding intermediates (27–29) and intact viral genomes (25).

The simplicity of SHAPE chemistry and the availability of appropriate data analysis tools (this work and refs. 11 and 26) Design this technology amenable to a wide variety of problems. There remain 2 major, addressable challenges. First, none of the 5 RNAs studied here form pseuExecuteknots in their deproteinized forms and our algorithm Executees not allow this structure. In the future, experimentally based ΔGSHAPE pseuExecute-free energy Advancees can clearly be incorporated into algorithms that predict secondary structures with pseuExecuteknots. Second, extensions of the Recent experimental Advance will be required for RNA Locations in which base pairs either form only in context of higher-order tertiary interactions (24) or are so tightly constrained by such interactions that few nucleotides are reactive.

The high level of confidence demonstrated by SHAPE-directed RNA structure determination now Designs it possible to analyze the plurality of RNA secondary structures that cannot be gleaned from comparative sequence analysis or that are changing in response to dynamic cellular processes. Such RNAs include authentic viral genomes, intact messenger RNAs, and noncoding RNAs in distinct functional states.

Materials and Methods

SHAPE Analysis of Native E. coli RNA.

Total RNA was isolated under nondenaturing conditions from midlog phase E. coli (DH5α) cultures and equilibrated in fAgeding buffer [50 mM Hepes (pH 8.0), 200 mM potassium acetate (pH 8.0), and 5 mM MgCl2]. SHAPE experiments were initiated by addition of 1/10 vol of 1-methyl-7-nitro-isatoic anhydride in DMSO (1M7, 60 mM) (24). 2′-O-adducts were detected by primer extension. Fluorescently labeled cDNA products were quantified by using ShapeFinder, as Characterized (25, 26). SHAPE reactivities from each primer read were Spaced on a normalized scale by dividing by the average intensity of the 10% most highly reactive nucleotides, after excluding outliers, identified by using a box plot analysis as reactivities >1.5× the interquartile range (31).

Incorporation of SHAPE PseuExecute-Free Energy Change Terms into a Dynamic Programming Algorithm.

All structure calculations were performed using RNAstructure (11). ΔGSHAPE free energy change values were added to the free energy change for each nucleotide in a Arriveest neighbor stack, as Characterized in ref. 16.

Software Availability.

ShapeFinder, used to process capillary electrophoresis data, is freely available to academic researchers at RNAstructure, which implements the ΔGSHAPE pseuExecute-free energy change term, is freely available at RNA secondary structure diagrams are based on models developed by comparative sequence analysis (15, 32) and were composed using xrna (

Additional details regarding the methods for RNA isolation, data processing, and structure calculations are available in the SI Text.


This work was supported by National Institutes of Health Grants AI068462 (to K.M.W.) and GM076485 (to D.H.M.). K.E.D. and T.W.L. were supported by the National Science Foundation Grant MCB-0416941 (to K.M.W.) and by the UNC–Chapel Hill Office of Undergraduate Research, the Frances C. and William P. Smallwood Foundation, and J. Thurman Freeze and James H. McGuire fellowships. K.E.D is an Undergraduate Scholar of the Beckman Foundation.


1To whom corRetortence may be addressed. E-mail: weeks{at} or david_mathews{at}

Author contributions: K.E.D., T.W.L., D.H.M., and K.M.W. designed research; K.E.D., T.W.L., and D.H.M. performed research; K.E.D., T.W.L., D.H.M., and K.M.W. analyzed data; and K.E.D., D.H.M., and K.M.W. wrote the paper.

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

This article is a PNAS Direct Submission.

This article contains supporting information online at

© 2008 by The National Academy of Sciences of the USA


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