One base forming two Watson-Crick pairs?

It is textbook knowledge that the Watson-Crick (WC) pairs are specific, forming only between A and T/U (A–T/U or T/U–A) or G and C (G–C or C–G). Furthermore, an A only forms one WC pair with a T, so is G vs. C. The widely used dot-bracket-notation (DBN) of DNA/RNA secondary structure depends crucially on this feature of specificity and uniqueness, by using matched parentheses to represent WC pairs, such as ((....)) for a GCGA (GNRA-type) tetra-loop of sequence GCGCGAGC.

The reality is more complicated, even for what’s presumably to be a ‘simple’ question of deriving RNA secondary structure from 3D coordinates in PDB. One subtlety is related to the ambiguity of atomic coordinates that renders one base apparently forming two WC pairs with two other complementary bases. As always, the case can be best illustrated with a concrete example. The image shown below is taken from PDB entry 1qp5 where C20 (on chain B) forms two WC pairs, each with G4 and G5 (on chain A) respectively.

C forming two WC G-C pairs in PDB entry 1qp5

Clearly, taking both as valid WC G–C pairs would make the resultant DBN illegitimate. DSSR resolves such discrepancies by taking structural context into consideration to ensure that one base can only have a WC pair with another base. Here the G5–C20 WC pair is retained whilst the G4–C20 WC is removed.

This issue, one base can form two WC pairs as derived from the PDB, has been noticed for a long while. Two examples from literature are shown below:

The crystal structure data files were downloaded from the Research Collaboratory for Structural Bioinformatics (RCSB) Protein Data Bank (Berman et al. 2000). For each crystal structure, the set of canonical base pairs was extracted by selecting all Watson–Crick and standard G-U wobble pairs found by RNAview (Yang et al. 2003). Occasional conflicts in this list, where RNAview annotates two bases, x and y, as a standard base pair and also y and z as another conflicting base pair, were removed manually by visual inspection of the crystal structure in the program PyMOL ( The helix-extension data set was created by taking the canonical pairs and adding all additional base–base interactions identified by RNAview (excluding stacked bases and tertiary interactions) for which the direct neighbor was already in the collection. This means each base pair (i,j) was added if both i and j were still unpaired and if either (i + 1, j – 1) or (i –1, j + 1) were already in the set.

… From these complexes, we retrieved all RNA chains also marked as non-redundant by RNA3DHub. Each chain was annotated by FR3D. Because FR3D cannot analyze modified nucleotides or those with missing atoms, our present method does not include them either. If several models exist for a same chain, the first one only was considered. For the rest of this paper, the base pairs extracted from the FR3D annotations are those defined in the Leontis–Westhof geometric classification (24).

For each chain a secondary structure without pseudoknots was deduced from the annotated interactions, as follows. First all canonical Watson–Crick and wobble base pairs (i.e. A-U, G-C and G-U) were identified. Then, since many structures are naturally pseudoknotted, we used the K2N (25) implementation in the PyCogent (26) Python module to remove pseudoknots. Problems arise when a nucleotide is involved in several Watson–Crick base pairs (which is geometrically not feasible), probably due to an error of the automatic annotation. Those discrepancies were removed with a ad hoc algorithm such that if a nucleotide is involved in several Watson–Crick base pairs, we remove the base pair which belongs to the shortest helix.

By design, DSSR takes care of these ‘little details’, among other handy features (such as handling modified nucleotides and removing pseudoknots). By providing a robust infrastructure and comprehensive framework, DSSR allows users to focus on their research topics. If you have experience with other tools, such as RNAView and FR3D cited above, give DSSR a try: it may fit your needs better.





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