Accelerating discoveries of non-coding RNA (ncRNA) in myriad biological processes pose major challenges to structural and functional analysis. Despite progress in secondary structure modeling, high-throughput methods have generally failed to determine ncRNA tertiary structures, even at the 1-nm resolution that enables visualization of how helices and functional motifs are positioned in three dimensions. We report that integrating a new method called MOHCA-seq (Multiplexed •OH
Cleavage Analysis with paired-end sequencing) with mutate-and-map secondary structure inference guides Rosetta 3D modeling to consistent 1-nm accuracy for intricately folded ncRNAs with lengths up to 188 nucleotides, including a blind RNA-puzzle challenge, the lariat-capping ribozyme. This multidimensional chemical mapping (MCM) pipeline resolves unexpected tertiary proximities for cyclic-di-GMP, glycine, and adenosylcobalamin riboswitch aptamers without their ligands and a loose structure for the recently discovered human HoxA9D internal ribosome entry site regulon. MCM offers a sequencing-based route to uncovering ncRNA 3D structure, applicable to functionally important but potentially heterogeneous states.
Our genetic material, in the form of molecules of DNA, provides instructions for many different processes in our cells. To issue these instructions, particular sections of DNA are copied to make a type of molecule called ribonucleic acid (RNA). Some of these RNA molecules contain instructions to make proteins, but others—known as non-coding RNAs—regulate the activity of genes in cells.
The genetic information within RNA is encoded by the sequence of four different chemical parts called ‘nucleotides’. RNA can exist as a single strand of nucleotides, but the nucleotides can also pair up in specific combinations to form sections of double-stranded RNA. Therefore, a single strand of non-coding RNA can fold into a complex three-dimensional shape that contains loops, twists, and bulges.
The three-dimensional structures of non-coding RNAs are crucial for their roles in cells, but the variety and complexity of shapes that they can form makes it technically difficult to study them. In 2008, researchers developed a new method called MOHCA that can map the positions of nucleotides that are close together in the three-dimensional structure. Highly reactive chemicals are attached to the nucleotides and these can react with, and damage, other nearby nucleotides. By detecting which nucleotides have been damaged, it is possible to map the positions of these nucleotides and decipher the structure of the RNA molecule using computer algorithms.
MOHCA is a promising approach, but the initial methods to find the damaged nucleotides were tedious and required specialized equipment. Now, Cheng, Das et al.—including some of the researchers involved in the 2008 work—have developed an improved version of MOHCA that uses readily available RNA sequencing techniques to find the damaged nucleotides. The RNA sequencing data are then analyzed by a new algorithm in the Rosetta computer modeling software.
Cheng, Das et al. used this newly developed ‘MOHCA-seq’ and Rosetta to reveal the structures of a human non-coding RNA and several other non-coding RNA molecules to a much higher level of detail than before. Together, MOHCA-seq and Rosetta provide a rapid method for researchers to decipher the three-dimensional structure of non-coding RNAs. This method is likely to speed up the analysis of the complex structures of non-coding RNAs. It will be useful in future efforts to work out what roles these RNAs play in cells, including their activity in cancer, neurodegeneration, and other diseases.