DSSR base blocks in PyMOL, interactively

In early 2015, Thomas Holder (the PyMOL Principal Developer at Schrodinger) and I agreed to work together on connecting DSSR to PyMOL. Moreover, we called for the community’s involvement in writing a DSSR plugin for PyMOL and received a few enthusiastic replies. Over the past few months, many significant progresses have been made in DSSR, including an article titled DSSR: an integrated software tool for dissecting the spatial structure of RNA published in Nucleic Acids Research (NAR) and a more streamlined DSSR-Jmol integration based on the --json output.

From the very beginning, Thomas and I had envisioned that the DSSR-PyMOL integration would include two components: one is to bring DSSR-derived RNA/DNA structural features into PyMOL (similar to the DSSR-Jmol interface, funcationality-wise), and the other is to render DSSR’s simple yet informative base-rectangular representations with PyMOL. While the ‘analysis’ component is a work in progress, the ‘visualization’ part is ready for the community to take advantage of.

Thomas has written a Python script named dssr_block.py. When the script is run in PyMOL, it adds the “dssr_block” command. The dssr_block.py script is less than 100 lines including documentation, with the real code taking no more than half of the total line number. The detailed documentation section (with two examples), when condensed, is as follows:

    Create a nucleid acid cartoon with DSSR
    dssr_block [selection [, state [, block_file [, block_depth [, name [, exe]]]]]]
    selection = str: atom selection {default: all}
    state = int: object state (0 for all states) {default: -1, current state}
    block_file = face|edge|wc|equal|minor|gray {default: face}
    block_depth = float: thickness of rectangular blocks {default: 0.5}
    name = str: name of new CGO object {default: dssr_block##}
    exe = str: path to "x3dna-dssr" executable {default: x3dna-dssr}
    fetch 1ehz, async=0
    as cartoon
    set cartoon_ladder_radius, 0.1
    set cartoon_ladder_color, gray
    set cartoon_nucleic_acid_mode, 1
    # multi-state
    fetch 2n2d, async=0
    dssr_block 2n2d, 0
    set all_states

Download the dssr_block.py script into a folder (directory) of your choice. Within PyMOL command window, type:

run dssr_block.py  # to make the 'dssr_block' command avaible
help dssr_block    # to get the help message, with contents shown above

The resultant cartoon-block image for running the documented commands (except for the additional orient command for best view) for case 1ehz is shown in Fig. 1 below.

DSSR block image for tRNA (1ehz)
Fig. 1: Cartoon-block image generated by dssr_block.py for PDB entry 1ehz (yeast phenylalanine tRNA)

For the NMR ensemble 2n2d, the corresponding image (after running orient) is illustrated in Fig. 2 as follows:

DSSR block image for an NMR ensemble (2n2d)
Fig. 2: Cartoon-block image generated by dssr_block.py for PDB entry 2n2d (an NMR ensemble).

In addition to the default settings, DSSR offers quite a few variations for the size and coloring of rectangular blocks, as demonstrated in Fig.3. The main settings are through the block_file option in PyMOL (note the underscore), corresponding to DSSR --block-file (or --block_file). The corresponding PyMOL commands are also listed for your reference. You can easily play around with the various styles interactively in PyMOL by toggling objects (dssr_block##) on or off. Enjoy!

DSSR block image for the Dickerson B-DNA dodecamer (355d)
Fig. 3: Cartoon-block image generated by dssr_block.py for PDB entry 355d (the Dickerson B-DNA dodecamer).

Fig. 3 is created with the following PyMOL commands:

fetch 355d, async=0
bg_color white

as cartoon
turn z, -90
turn y, 180

set cartoon_ladder_mode, 1
set cartoon_ladder_radius, 0.1
set cartoon_ladder_color, black

set cartoon_tube_radius, 0.5
set cartoon_nucleic_acid_mode, 1
set cartoon_color, gold

dssr_block 355d                  # default base blocks in solid color
dssr_block block_file=edge       # rectangular blocks in wireframe (black)
dssr_block block_file=face+edge  # solid color with outline
dssr_block block_file=equal      # bases blocks in equal size
dssr_block block_file=minor      # with minor-groove colord black
dssr_block block_file=wc         # Watson-Crick base pairs in long bp blocks
dssr_block block_file=wc-minor   # Watson-Crick pairs + minor-groove edge
dssr_block block_file=gray       # rectangular blocks all in gray
dssr_block block_depth=1.8       # with increased thickness


  • The dssr_block.py script described here is the original version Thomas communicated to me. Current version of this script and related topics can be found in the Dssr block PyMOLWiki page.
  • For this script to work, DSSR needs to be installed and x3dna-dssr in the PATH.
  • In PyMOL, set cartoon_nucleic_acid_mode, 1 employs C3′ instead of the default P (‘mode 0’) for the smooth backbone trace. Since 5′ terminal phosphate groups are normally not available from X-ray crystal structures (e.g., 355d), ‘mode 1’ is used to avoid orphan base blocks from the backbone trace.


Hello Dr. Lu,

I have a question regarding the installation of the pymol-integrated dssr. I have been following the steps on the pymolwiki but the error message kept popping up:

open_file ‘x3dna-dssr.log’ failed: Permission denied

time used: 00:00:00:00
Error: “x3dna-dssr” failed

Any suggestions on solving this?
Thank you very much.

— Yen · 2017-06-23 12:25 · #


Thanks for stopping by.

The error message is related to denied permission for DSSR to write a file to the directory where you are running PyMOL. No such case has been reported before, but it is worthing the effort to sort the issue out.

Please post your question and any follow-ups on the 3DNA Forum — that’s a better place for such technical questions. Thomas Holder, who wrote the DSSR-PyMOL plugin, may chime in.

Best regards,


— Xiang-Jun · 2017-06-23 17:01 · #



Thank you for printing this article from http://home.x3dna.org/. Please do not forget to visit back for more 3DNA-related information. — Xiang-Jun Lu