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1.  Single Molecule Cluster Analysis Identifies Signature Dynamic Conformations along the Splicing Pathway 
Nature methods  2015;12(11):1077-1084.
The spliceosome is the dynamic RNA-protein machine responsible for faithfully splicing introns from precursor messenger RNAs (pre-mRNAs). Many of the dynamic processes required for the proper assembly, catalytic activation, and disassembly of the spliceosome as it acts on its pre-mRNA substrate remain poorly understood, a challenge that persists for many biomolecular machines. Here, we developed a fluorescence-based Single Molecule Cluster Analysis (SiMCAn) tool to dissect the manifold conformational dynamics of a pre-mRNA through the splicing cycle. By clustering common dynamic behaviors derived from selectively blocked splicing reactions, SiMCAn was able to identify signature conformations and dynamic behaviors of multiple ATP-dependent intermediates. In addition, it identified a conformation adopted late in splicing by a 3′ splice site mutant, invoking a mechanism for substrate proofreading. SiMCAn presents a novel framework for interpreting complex single molecule behaviors that should prove widely useful for the comprehensive analysis of a plethora of dynamic cellular machines.
PMCID: PMC4890712  PMID: 26414013
2.  Selecting against accidental RNA interactions 
eLife  null;5:e20686.
Random base-pairing interactions between messenger RNAs and noncoding RNAs can reduce translation efficiency.
PMCID: PMC5028187  PMID: 27642846
ncRNA; Archaea; Bacteria; gene expression; bioinformatics; E. coli; Other
3.  The potential of the riboSNitch in personalized medicine 
RNA conformation plays a significant role in stability, ligand binding, transcription and translation. Single nucleotide variants (SNVs) have the potential to disrupt specific structural elements because RNA folds in a sequence specific manner. A riboSNitch is an element of RNA structure with a specific function that is disrupted by an SNV or SNP (single nucleotide variant or polymorphism; SNVs occur with low frequency in the population, <1%). The riboSNitch is analogous to a riboswitch, where binding of a small molecule rather than mutation alters the structure of the RNA to control gene regulation. RiboSNitches are particularly relevant to interpreting the results of genome-wide association studies (GWAS). Often GWAS identify SNPs associated with a phenotype mapping to non-coding regions of the genome. Since a majority of the human genome is transcribed, significant subsets of GWAS SNPs are putative riboSNitches. The extent to which the transcriptome is tolerant of SNP-induced structure change is still poorly understood. Recent advances in ultra-high throughput structure probing begin to reveal the structural complexities of mutation induced structure change. This review summarizes our current understanding of SNV and SNP-induced structure change in the human transcriptome and discusses the importance of riboSNitch discovery in interpreting GWAS results and massive sequencing projects.
PMCID: PMC4543445  PMID: 26115028
4.  A unified analytic framework for prioritization of non-coding variants of uncertain significance in heritable breast and ovarian cancer 
BMC Medical Genomics  2016;9:19.
Sequencing of both healthy and disease singletons yields many novel and low frequency variants of uncertain significance (VUS). Complete gene and genome sequencing by next generation sequencing (NGS) significantly increases the number of VUS detected. While prior studies have emphasized protein coding variants, non-coding sequence variants have also been proven to significantly contribute to high penetrance disorders, such as hereditary breast and ovarian cancer (HBOC). We present a strategy for analyzing different functional classes of non-coding variants based on information theory (IT) and prioritizing patients with large intragenic deletions.
We captured and enriched for coding and non-coding variants in genes known to harbor mutations that increase HBOC risk. Custom oligonucleotide baits spanning the complete coding, non-coding, and intergenic regions 10 kb up- and downstream of ATM, BRCA1, BRCA2, CDH1, CHEK2, PALB2, and TP53 were synthesized for solution hybridization enrichment. Unique and divergent repetitive sequences were sequenced in 102 high-risk, anonymized patients without identified mutations in BRCA1/2. Aside from protein coding and copy number changes, IT-based sequence analysis was used to identify and prioritize pathogenic non-coding variants that occurred within sequence elements predicted to be recognized by proteins or protein complexes involved in mRNA splicing, transcription, and untranslated region (UTR) binding and structure. This approach was supplemented by in silico and laboratory analysis of UTR structure.
15,311 unique variants were identified, of which 245 occurred in coding regions. With the unified IT-framework, 132 variants were identified and 87 functionally significant VUS were further prioritized. An intragenic 32.1 kb interval in BRCA2 that was likely hemizygous was detected in one patient. We also identified 4 stop-gain variants and 3 reading-frame altering exonic insertions/deletions (indels).
We have presented a strategy for complete gene sequence analysis followed by a unified framework for interpreting non-coding variants that may affect gene expression. This approach distills large numbers of variants detected by NGS to a limited set of variants prioritized as potential deleterious changes.
Electronic supplementary material
The online version of this article (doi:10.1186/s12920-016-0178-5) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
PMCID: PMC4828881  PMID: 27067391
Information theory; Hereditary breast and ovarian cancer; Transcription factor binding; RNA-binding protein; Prioritization; Variants of uncertain significance; Splicing; Non-coding; Next-generation sequencing
5.  The potential of the riboSNitch in personalized medicine 
RNA conformation plays a significant role in stability, ligand binding, transcription, and translation. Single nucleotide variants (SNVs) have the potential to disrupt specific structural elements because RNA folds in a sequence‐specific manner. A riboSNitch is an element of RNA structure with a specific function that is disrupted by an SNV or a single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP; or polymorphism; SNVs occur with low frequency in the population, <1%). The riboSNitch is analogous to a riboswitch, where binding of a small molecule rather than mutation alters the structure of the RNA to control gene regulation. RiboSNitches are particularly relevant to interpreting the results of genome‐wide association studies (GWAS). Often GWAS identify SNPs associated with a phenotype mapping to noncoding regions of the genome. Because a majority of the human genome is transcribed, significant subsets of GWAS SNPs are putative riboSNitches. The extent to which the transcriptome is tolerant of SNP‐induced structure change is still poorly understood. Recent advances in ultra high‐throughput structure probing begin to reveal the structural complexities of mutation‐induced structure change. This review summarizes our current understanding of SNV and SNP‐induced structure change in the human transcriptome and discusses the importance of riboSNitch discovery in interpreting GWAS results and massive sequencing projects. WIREs RNA 2015, 6:517–532. doi: 10.1002/wrna.1291
For further resources related to this article, please visit the WIREs website.
PMCID: PMC4543445  PMID: 26115028
6.  Increased Transcript Complexity in Genes Associated with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease 
PLoS ONE  2015;10(10):e0140885.
Genome-wide association studies aim to correlate genotype with phenotype. Many common diseases including Type II diabetes, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) are complex genetic traits with hundreds of different loci that are associated with varied disease risk. Identifying common features in the genes associated with each disease remains a challenge. Furthermore, the role of post-transcriptional regulation, and in particular alternative splicing, is still poorly understood in most multigenic diseases. We therefore compiled comprehensive lists of genes associated with Type II diabetes, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and COPD in an attempt to identify common features of their corresponding mRNA transcripts within each gene set. The SERPINA1 gene is a well-recognized genetic risk factor of COPD and it produces 11 transcript variants, which is exceptional for a human gene. This led us to hypothesize that other genes associated with COPD, and complex disorders in general, are highly transcriptionally diverse. We found that COPD-associated genes have a statistically significant enrichment in transcript complexity stemming from a disproportionately high level of alternative splicing, however, Type II Diabetes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease genes were not significantly enriched. We also identified a subset of transcriptionally complex COPD-associated genes (~40%) that are differentially expressed between mild, moderate and severe COPD. Although the genes associated with other lung diseases are not extensively documented, we found preliminary data that idiopathic pulmonary disease genes, but not cystic fibrosis modulators, are also more transcriptionally complex. Interestingly, complex COPD transcripts are more often the product of alternative acceptor site usage. To verify the biological importance of these alternative transcripts, we used RNA-sequencing analyses to determine that COPD-associated genes are frequently expressed in lung and liver tissues and are regulated in a tissue-specific manner. Additionally, many complex COPD-associated genes are spliced differently between COPD and non-COPD patients. Our analysis therefore suggests that post-transcriptional regulation, particularly alternative splicing, is an important feature specific to COPD disease etiology that warrants further investigation.
PMCID: PMC4610675  PMID: 26480348
7.  Detecting riboSNitches with RNA folding algorithms: a genome-wide benchmark 
Nucleic Acids Research  2015;43(3):1859-1868.
Ribonucleic acid (RNA) secondary structure prediction continues to be a significant challenge, in particular when attempting to model sequences with less rigidly defined structures, such as messenger and non-coding RNAs. Crucial to interpreting RNA structures as they pertain to individual phenotypes is the ability to detect RNAs with large structural disparities caused by a single nucleotide variant (SNV) or riboSNitches. A recently published human genome-wide parallel analysis of RNA structure (PARS) study identified a large number of riboSNitches as well as non-riboSNitches, providing an unprecedented set of RNA sequences against which to benchmark structure prediction algorithms. Here we evaluate 11 different RNA folding algorithms’ riboSNitch prediction performance on these data. We find that recent algorithms designed specifically to predict the effects of SNVs on RNA structure, in particular remuRNA, RNAsnp and SNPfold, perform best on the most rigorously validated subsets of the benchmark data. In addition, our benchmark indicates that general structure prediction algorithms (e.g. RNAfold and RNAstructure) have overall better performance if base pairing probabilities are considered rather than minimum free energy calculations. Although overall aggregate algorithmic performance on the full set of riboSNitches is relatively low, significant improvement is possible if the highest confidence predictions are evaluated independently.
PMCID: PMC4330374  PMID: 25618847
8.  Small RNAs derived from lncRNA RNase MRP have gene-silencing activity relevant to human cartilage–hair hypoplasia 
Human Molecular Genetics  2013;23(2):368-382.
Post-transcriptional processing of some long non-coding RNAs (lncRNAs) reveals that they are a source of miRNAs. We show that the 268-nt non-coding RNA component of mitochondrial RNA processing endoribonuclease, (RNase MRP), is the source of at least two short (∼20 nt) RNAs designated RMRP-S1 and RMRP-S2, which function as miRNAs. Point mutations in RNase MRP cause human cartilage–hair hypoplasia (CHH), and several disease-causing mutations map to RMRP-S1 and -S2. SHAPE chemical probing identified two alternative secondary structures altered by disease mutations. RMRP-S1 and -S2 are significantly reduced in two fibroblast cell lines and a B-cell line derived from CHH patients. Tests of gene regulatory activity of RMRP-S1 and -S2 identified over 900 genes that were significantly regulated, of which over 75% were down-regulated, and 90% contained target sites with seed complements of RMRP-S1 and -S2 predominantly in their 3′ UTRs. Pathway analysis identified regulated genes that function in skeletal development, hair development and hematopoietic cell differentiation including PTCH2 and SOX4 among others, linked to major CHH phenotypes. Also, genes associated with alternative RNA splicing, cell proliferation and differentiation were highly targeted. Therefore, alterations RMRP-S1 and -S2, caused by point mutations in RMRP, are strongly implicated in the molecular mechanism of CHH.
PMCID: PMC3869355  PMID: 24009312
9.  Mapping the Kinetic Barriers of a Large RNA Molecule's Folding Landscape 
PLoS ONE  2014;9(2):e85041.
The folding of linear polymers into discrete three-dimensional structures is often required for biological function. The formation of long-lived intermediates is a hallmark of the folding of large RNA molecules due to the ruggedness of their energy landscapes. The precise thermodynamic nature of the barriers (whether enthalpic or entropic) that leads to intermediate formation is still poorly characterized in large structured RNA molecules. A classic approach to analyzing kinetic barriers are temperature dependent studies analyzed with Eyring's transition state theory. We applied Eyring's theory to time-resolved hydroxyl radical (•OH) footprinting kinetics progress curves collected at eight temperature from 21.5°C to 51°C to characterize the thermodynamic nature of folding intermediate formation for the Mg2+-mediated folding of the Tetrahymena thermophila group I ribozyme. A common kinetic model configuration describes this RNA folding reaction over the entire temperature range studied consisting of primary (fast) transitions to misfolded intermediates followed by much slower secondary transitions, consistent with previous studies. Eyring analysis reveals that the primary transitions are moderate in magnitude and primarily enthalpic in nature. In contrast, the secondary transitions are daunting in magnitude and entropic in nature. The entropic character of the secondary transitions is consistent with structural rearrangement of the intermediate species to the final folded form. This segregation of kinetic control reveals distinctly different molecular mechanisms during the two stages of RNA folding and documents the importance of entropic barriers to defining rugged RNA folding landscapes.
PMCID: PMC3934814  PMID: 24586236
10.  Evolutionary Evidence for Alternative Structure in RNA Sequence Co-variation 
PLoS Computational Biology  2013;9(7):e1003152.
Sequence conservation and co-variation of base pairs are hallmarks of structured RNAs. For certain RNAs (e.g. riboswitches), a single sequence must adopt at least two alternative secondary structures to effectively regulate the message. If alternative secondary structures are important to the function of an RNA, we expect to observe evolutionary co-variation supporting multiple conformations. We set out to characterize the evolutionary co-variation supporting alternative conformations in riboswitches to determine the extent to which alternative secondary structures are conserved. We found strong co-variation support for the terminator, P1, and anti-terminator stems in the purine riboswitch by extending alignments to include terminator sequences. When we performed Boltzmann suboptimal sampling on purine riboswitch sequences with terminators we found that these sequences appear to have evolved to favor specific alternative conformations. We extended our analysis of co-variation to classic alignments of group I/II introns, tRNA, and other classes of riboswitches. In a majority of these RNAs, we found evolutionary evidence for alternative conformations that are compatible with the Boltzmann suboptimal ensemble. Our analyses suggest that alternative conformations are selected for and thus likely play functional roles in even the most structured of RNAs.
Author Summary
RNA (Ribonucleic Acid) is a messenger of genetic information, master regulator, and catalyst in the cell. To carry out its function, RNA can fold into complex three-dimensional structures. Certain classes of RNAs, called riboswitches, adopt at least two alternative structures to act as a switch. We set out to detect the evolutionary signal for alternative structures in riboswitches as we hypothesize that these RNA sequences must have evolved to allow both conformations. We find that indeed such signals exist when we compare the sequences of riboswitches from multiple species. When we extend this analysis to other RNA regulators in the cell that are not thought of as switches, we detect equivalent evolutionary support for alternative structures. Viewed through the lens of evolutionary structure conservation RNA sequences appear to have adapted to adopt multiple conformations.
PMCID: PMC3723493  PMID: 23935473
11.  A novel application of pattern recognition for accurate SNP and indel discovery from high-throughput data: targeted resequencing of the glucocorticoid receptor co-chaperone FKBP5 in a Caucasian population 
Molecular genetics and metabolism  2011;104(4):457-469.
The detection of single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) and insertion/deletions (indels) with precision from high-throughput data remains a significant bioinformatics challenge. Accurate detection is necessary before next-generation sequencing can routinely be used in the clinic. In research, scientific advances are inhibited by gaps in data, exemplified by the underrepresented discovery of rare variants, variants in non-coding regions and indels. The continued presence of false positives and false negatives prevents full automation and requires additional manual verification steps. Our methodology presents applications of both pattern recognition and sensitivity analysis to eliminate false positives and aid in the detection of SNP/indel loci and genotypes from high-throughput data. We chose FK506-binding protein 51(FKBP5) (6p21.31) for our clinical target because of its role in modulating pharmacological responses to physiological and synthetic glucocorticoids and because of the complexity of the genomic region. We detected genetic variation across a160 kb region encompassing FKBP5. 613 SNPs and 57 indels, including a 3.3 kb deletion were discovered. We validated our method using three independent data sets and, with Sanger sequencing and Affymetrix and Illumina microarrays, achieved 99% concordance. Furthermore we were able to detect 267 novel rare variants and assess linkage disequilibrium. Our results showed both a sensitivity and specificity of 98%, indicating near perfect classification between true and false variants. The process is scalable and amenable to automation, with the downstream filters taking only 1.5 hours to analyze 96 individuals simultaneously. We provide examples of how our level of precision uncovered the interactions of multiple loci, their predicted influences on mRNA stability, perturbations of the hsp90 binding site, and individual variation in FKBP5 expression. Finally we show how our discovery of rare variants may change current conceptions of evolution at this locus.
PMCID: PMC3224211  PMID: 21917492
pattern recognition; next-generation sequencing analysis; indels; rare variants; FKBP5; HLA
12.  Toward interoperable bioscience data 
Nature genetics  2012;44(2):121-126.
To make full use of research data, the bioscience community needs to adopt technologies and reward mechanisms that support interoperability and promote the growth of an open ‘data commoning’ culture. Here we describe the prerequisites for data commoning and present an established and growing ecosystem of solutions using the shared ‘Investigation-Study-Assay’ framework to support that vision.
PMCID: PMC3428019  PMID: 22281772
13.  Evaluating our ability to predict the structural disruption of RNA by SNPs 
BMC Genomics  2012;13(Suppl 4):S6.
The structure of RiboNucleic Acid (RNA) has the potential to be altered by a Single Nucleotide Polymorphism (SNP). Disease-associated SNPs mapping to non-coding regions of the genome that are transcribed into RiboNucleic Acid (RNA) can potentially affect cellular regulation (and cause disease) by altering the structure of the transcript. We performed a large-scale meta-analysis of Selective 2'-Hydroxyl Acylation analyzed by Primer Extension (SHAPE) data, which probes the structure of RNA. We found that several single point mutations exist that significantly disrupt RNA secondary structure in the five transcripts we analyzed. Thus, every RNA that is transcribed has the potential to be a “RiboSNitch;” where a SNP causes a large conformational change that alters regulatory function. Predicting the SNPs that will have the largest effect on RNA structure remains a contemporary computational challenge. We therefore benchmarked the most popular RNA structure prediction algorithms for their ability to identify mutations that maximally affect structure. We also evaluated metrics for rank ordering the extent of the structural change. Although no single algorithm/metric combination dramatically outperformed the others, small differences in AUC (Area Under the Curve) values reveal that certain approaches do provide better agreement with experiment. The experimental data we analyzed nonetheless show that multiple single point mutations exist in all RNA transcripts that significantly disrupt structure in agreement with the predictions.
PMCID: PMC3303743  PMID: 22759654
14.  Membrane RNAs in Bacteria 
Molecular microbiology  2011;79(1):1-2.
PMCID: PMC3071713  PMID: 21210530
15.  Meeting report of the RNA Ontology Consortium January 8-9, 2011 
Standards in Genomic Sciences  2011;4(2):252-256.
This report summarizes the proceedings of the structure mapping working group meeting of the RNA Ontology Consortium (ROC), held in Kona, Hawaii on January 8-9, 2011. The ROC hosted this workshop to facilitate collaborations among those researchers formalizing concepts in RNA, those developing RNA-related software, and those performing genome annotation and standardization. The workshop included three software presentations, extended round-table discussions, and the constitution of two new working groups, the first to address the need for better software integration and the second to discuss standardization and benchmarking of existing RNA annotation pipelines. These working groups have subsequently pursued concrete implementation of actions suggested during the discussion. Further information about the ROC and its activities can be found at
PMCID: PMC3111981  PMID: 21677862
16.  Common genetic variation in the HLA region is associated with late-onset sporadic Parkinson’s disease 
Nature genetics  2010;42(9):781-785.
Parkinson disease (PD) is a common disorder that leads to motor and cognitive disability. We performed a genome-wide association study (GWAS) with 2000 PD and 1986 control Caucasian subjects from NeuroGenetics Research Consortium.1–5 We confirmed SNCA2,6–8 and MAPT3,7–9; replicated GAK9 (PPankratz+NGRC=3.2×10−9); and detected a novel association with HLA (PNGRC=2.9×10−8) which replicated in two datasets (PMeta-analysis=1.9×10−10). We designate the new PD genes PARK17 (GAK) and PARK18 (HLA). PD-HLA association was uniform across genetic and environmental risk strata, and strong in sporadic (P=5.5×10−10) and late-onset (P=2.4×10−8) PD. The association peak was at rs3129882, a non-coding variant in HLA-DRA. Two studies suggested rs3129882 influences expression of HLA-DR and HLA-DQ.10,11 PD brains exhibit up-regulation of DR antigens and presence of DR-positive reactive microglia.12 Moreover, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID) reduce PD risk.4,13 The genetic association with HLA coalesces the evidence for involvement of the immune system and offers new targets for drug development and pharmacogenetics.
PMCID: PMC2930111  PMID: 20711177
17.  Strategies for articulated multibody-based adaptive coarse grain simulation of RNA 
Methods in enzymology  2011;487:73-98.
Efficient modeling approaches are necessary to accurately predict large-scale structural behavior of biomolecular systems like RNA (Ribonucleic Acid). Coarse grained approximations of such complex systems can significantly reduce the computational costs of the simulation while maintaining sufficient fidelity to capture the biologically significant motions. However, given the coupling and nonlinearity of RNA systems (and effectively all biopolymers), it is expected that different parameters such as geometric and dynamic boundary conditions, states, and applied forces will affect the system’s dynamic behavior. Consequently, static coarse grained models (i.e., models for which the coarse graining is time invariant) are not always able to adequately sample the conformational space of the molecule. We introduce here the concept of adaptive coarse-grained molecular dynamics of RNA, which automatically adapts the coarseness of the model dynamically, in an effort to more optimally increase simulation speed, while maintaining accuracy. Adaptivity requires two basic algorithmic developments; first, a set of integrators that seamlessly allow transitions between higher and lower fidelity models while preserving the laws of motion. Secondly, we propose and validate metrics for determining when and where more or less fidelity needs to be integrated into the model to allow sufficiently accurate dynamics simulation. Given the central role that multibody dynamics plays in the proposed framework, and the nominally large number of dynamic degrees of freedom being considered in these applications, a computationally efficient multibody method which lends itself well to adaptivity is essential to the success of this effort. A suite of Divide-And-Conquer Algorithm (DCA)-based approaches are employed to this end, because these methods offer a good combination of computational efficiency and adaptive structure.
PMCID: PMC3026659  PMID: 21187222
adaptive coarse graining; articulated multibody dynamics; divide-and-conquer algorithm; RNA; transition metric
18.  Rapid quantification and analysis of kinetic • OH radical footprinting data using SAFA 
Methods in enzymology  2009;468:47-66.
The use of highly reactive chemical species to probe the structure and dynamics of nucleic acids is greatly simplified by software that enables rapid quantification of the gel images that result from these experiments. SAFA (Semi-Automated Footprinting Analysis) allows a user to quickly and reproducibly quantify a chemical footprinting gel image through a series of steps that rectify, assign, and integrate the relative band intensities. The output of this procedure is raw band intensities that report on the relative reactivity of each nucleotide with the chemical probe. We describe here how to obtain these raw band intensities using SAFA and the subsequent normalization and analysis procedures required to process this data. In particular, we focus on analyzing time-resolved hydroxyl radical (•OH) data, which we use to monitor the kinetics of folding of a large RNA (the L-21 T. thermophila group I intron). Exposing the RNA to bursts of •OH radicals at specific time-points during the folding process monitors the time-progress of the reaction. Specifically, we identify protected (nucleotides that become inaccessible to the •OH radical probe when folded) and invariant (nucleotides with constant accessibility to the •OH probe) residues that we use for monitoring and normalization of the data. With this analysis, we obtain time-progress curves from which we determine kinetic rates of folding. We also report on a data visualization tool implemented in SAFA that allows users to map data onto a secondary structure diagram.
PMCID: PMC2957676  PMID: 20946764
19.  Disease-Associated Mutations That Alter the RNA Structural Ensemble 
PLoS Genetics  2010;6(8):e1001074.
Genome-wide association studies (GWAS) often identify disease-associated mutations in intergenic and non-coding regions of the genome. Given the high percentage of the human genome that is transcribed, we postulate that for some observed associations the disease phenotype is caused by a structural rearrangement in a regulatory region of the RNA transcript. To identify such mutations, we have performed a genome-wide analysis of all known disease-associated Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs) from the Human Gene Mutation Database (HGMD) that map to the untranslated regions (UTRs) of a gene. Rather than using minimum free energy approaches (e.g. mFold), we use a partition function calculation that takes into consideration the ensemble of possible RNA conformations for a given sequence. We identified in the human genome disease-associated SNPs that significantly alter the global conformation of the UTR to which they map. For six disease-states (Hyperferritinemia Cataract Syndrome, β-Thalassemia, Cartilage-Hair Hypoplasia, Retinoblastoma, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), and Hypertension), we identified multiple SNPs in UTRs that alter the mRNA structural ensemble of the associated genes. Using a Boltzmann sampling procedure for sub-optimal RNA structures, we are able to characterize and visualize the nature of the conformational changes induced by the disease-associated mutations in the structural ensemble. We observe in several cases (specifically the 5′ UTRs of FTL and RB1) SNP–induced conformational changes analogous to those observed in bacterial regulatory Riboswitches when specific ligands bind. We propose that the UTR and SNP combinations we identify constitute a “RiboSNitch,” that is a regulatory RNA in which a specific SNP has a structural consequence that results in a disease phenotype. Our SNPfold algorithm can help identify RiboSNitches by leveraging GWAS data and an analysis of the mRNA structural ensemble.
Author Summary
Genome-wide association studies identify mutations in the human genome that correlate with a particular disease. It is common to find mutations associated with disease in the non-coding region of the genome. These non-coding mutations are more difficult to interpret at a molecular level, because they do not affect the protein sequence. In this study, we analyze disease-associated mutations in non-coding regions of our genome in the context of their structural effect on the message of genetic information in our cells, Ribonucleic Acid (RNA). We focus in particular on the regulatory parts of our genes known as untranslated regions. We find that certain disease-associated mutations in these regulatory untranslated regions have a significant effect on the structure of the RNA message. We call these elements “RiboSNitches,” because they act like switches turning on and off genes, but are caused by Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs), which are single point mutations in our genome. The RiboSNitches we identify are potentially a new class of pharmaceutical targets, as it is possible to change the structure of RNA with small drug-like molecules.
PMCID: PMC2924325  PMID: 20808897
20.  Energy barriers, pathways and dynamics during folding of large, multi-domain RNAs 
Large, multi-domain RNA molecules are generally thought to fold following multiple pathways down rugged landscapes populated with intermediates and traps. A challenge to understanding RNA folding reactions are the complex relationships that exist between the structure of the RNA and its folding landscape. The identification of intermediate species that populate folding landscapes and characterization of elements of their structures are key components to solving the RNA folding problem. This review explores recent studies that characterize the dominant pathways by which RNA folds, structural and dynamic features of intermediates that populate the folding landscape and the energy barriers that separate the distinct steps of the folding process.
PMCID: PMC2739931  PMID: 18926923
21.  Exhaustive Enumeration of Kinetic Model Topologies for the Analysis of Time-Resolved RNA Folding 
Algorithms  2009;2(1):200-214.
Unlike protein folding, the process by which a large RNA molecule adopts a functionally active conformation remains poorly understood. Chemical mapping techniques, such as Hydroxyl Radical (·OH) footprinting report on local structural changes in an RNA as it folds with single nucleotide resolution. The analysis and interpretation of this kinetic data requires the identification and subsequent optimization of a kinetic model and its parameters. We detail our approach to this problem, specifically focusing on a novel strategy to overcome a factorial explosion in the number of possible models that need to be tested to identify the best fitting model. Previously, smaller systems (less than three intermediates) were computationally tractable using a distributed computing approach. However, for larger systems with three or more intermediates, the problem became computationally intractable. With our new enumeration strategy, we are able to significantly reduce the number of models that need to be tested using non-linear least squares optimization, allowing us to study systems with up to five intermediates. Furthermore, two intermediate systems can now be analyzed on a desktop computer, which eliminates the need for a distributed computing solution for most medium-sized data sets. Our new approach also allows us to study potential degeneracy in kinetic model selection, elucidating the limits of the method when working with large systems. This work establishes clear criteria for determining if experimental ·OH data is sufficient to determine the underlying kinetic model, or if other experimental modalities are required to resolve any degeneracy.
PMCID: PMC2768297  PMID: 19865589
RNA folding; kinetic modeling; Tetrahymena thermophila group I intron; distributed computing; ·OH radical footprinting
22.  Semi-automated and rapid quantification of nucleic acid footprinting and structure mapping experiments 
Nature protocols  2008;3(9):1395-1401.
We have developed protocols for rapidly quantifying the band intensities from nucleic acid chemical mapping gels at single nucleotide resolution. These protocols are implemented in the software SAFA (Semi-Automated Footprinting Analysis) that can be downloaded without charge from The protocols implemented in SAFA have five steps: 1.) Lane identification, 2.) Gel rectification, 3.) Band assignment, 4.) Model fitting, and 5.) Band intensity normalization. SAFA enables the rapid quantitation of gel images containing thousands of discrete bands, thereby eliminating a bottleneck to the analysis of chemical mapping experiments. An experienced user of the software can quantify a gel image in approximately 15 minutes. Although SAFA was developed to analyze hydroxyl radical (·OH) footprints, it effectively quantifies the gel images obtained with other types of chemical mapping probes. We also present a series of tutorial movies that illustrate the best practices and different steps in the SAFA analysis as a supplement to this protocol.
PMCID: PMC2652576  PMID: 18772866
Gel Electrophoresis; Quantification; Chemical Mapping; Nucleic Acid; Phosphorimaging; SAFA; Footprint
23.  Informatics challenges in Structured RNA 
Briefings in bioinformatics  2007;8(5):294-303.
The world of regulatory RNAs is fast expanding into mainstream molecular biology as both a subject of intense mechanistic study and as a tool for functional characterization. The RNA world is one of complex structures that carry out catalysis, sense metabolites and synthesize proteins. The dynamic and structural nature of RNAs presents a whole new set of informatics challenges to the computational community. The ability to relate structure and dynamics to function will be key to understanding this complex world. I review several important classes of structured RNAs that present our community with a series of biologically novel informatics challenges. I also review available informatics tools that have been recently developed in the field.
PMCID: PMC2629073  PMID: 17611237
RNA; Folding; Informatics; Riboswitch; Ribosome; RNAi
24.  Local kinetic measures of macromolecular structure reveal partitioning among multiple parallel pathways from the earliest steps in the folding of a large RNA molecule¶ 
Journal of molecular biology  2006;358(4):1179-1190.
At the heart of the RNA folding problem is the number, structures, and relationships among the intermediates that populate the folding pathways of most large RNA molecules. Unique insight into the structural dynamics of these intermediates can be gleaned from the time-dependent changes in local probes of macromolecular conformation (e.g. reports on individual nucleotide solvent accessibility offered by hydroxyl radical (•OH) footprinting). Local measures distributed around a macromolecule individually illuminate the ensemble of separate changes that constitute a folding reaction. Folding pathway reconstruction from a multitude of these individual measures is daunting due to the combinatorial explosion of possible kinetic models as the number of independent local measures increases. Fortunately, clustering of time progress curves sufficiently reduces the dimensionality of the data so as to make reconstruction computationally tractable. The most likely folding topology and intermediates can then be identified by exhaustively enumerating all possible kinetic models on a super-computer grid. The folding pathways and measures of the relative flux through them were determined for Mg2+- and Na+-mediated folding of the Tetrahymena thermophila group I intron using this combined experimental and computational approach. The flux during Mg2+-mediated folding is divided among numerous parallel pathways. In contrast, the flux during the Na+-mediated reaction is predominantly restricted through three pathways, one of which is without detectable passage through intermediates. Under both conditions, the folding reaction is highly parallel with no single pathway accounting for more than 50% of the molecular flux. This suggests that RNA folding is non-sequential under a variety of different experimental conditions even at the earliest stages of folding. This study provides a template for the systematic analysis of the time-evolution of RNA structure from ensembles of local measures that will illuminate the chemical and physical characteristics of each step in the process. The applicability of this analysis approach to other macromolecules is discussed.
PMCID: PMC2621361  PMID: 16574145
RNA; Folding; Ribozyme; Pathway; Salt
25.  High-throughput single-nucleotide structural mapping by capillary automated footprinting analysis 
Nucleic Acids Research  2008;36(11):e63.
The use of capillary electrophoresis with fluorescently labeled nucleic acids revolutionized DNA sequencing, effectively fueling the genomic revolution. We present an application of this technology for the high-throughput structural analysis of nucleic acids by chemical and enzymatic mapping (‘footprinting’). We achieve the throughput and data quality necessary for genomic-scale structural analysis by combining fluorophore labeling of nucleic acids with novel quantitation algorithms. We implemented these algorithms in the CAFA (capillary automated footprinting analysis) open-source software that is downloadable gratis from The accuracy, throughput and reproducibility of CAFA analysis are demonstrated using hydroxyl radical footprinting of RNA. The versatility of CAFA is illustrated by dimethyl sulfate mapping of RNA secondary structure and DNase I mapping of a protein binding to a specific sequence of DNA. Our experimental and computational approach facilitates the acquisition of high-throughput chemical probing data for solution structural analysis of nucleic acids.
PMCID: PMC2441812  PMID: 18477638

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