DSSR, what is it and why bother?

Over the past six months or so1, I’ve been focusing mostly on developing DSSR, a new addition to the 3DNA suite of programs. So what is DSSR, specifically? Why did I bother to create it? How would it be relevant to the nucleic acid structure community?

Literally, DSSR stands for Defining the (Secondary) Structures of RNA2. Starting from an RNA structure in PDB format, DSSR employs a set of simple criteria to identify all existent base pairs (bp): both canonical Watson–Crick (WC) pairs and non-canonical pairs with at least one H-bond, made up of normal or modified bases, regardless of tautomeric or protonation state. The classification is based on the six standard rigid-body bp parameters (shear, stretch, stagger, propeller, buckle, and opening), which together rigorously quantify the spatial disposition of any two interacting bases. Moreover, the program characterizes each bp by commonly used names (WC, reverse WC, Hoogsteen, reverse Hoogsteen, wobble, sheared, imino, Calcutta, and dinucleotide platform), the Saenger classification scheme of 28 types, and the Leontis-Westhof nomenclature of 12 basic geometric classes. DSSR also checks for non-pairing interactions (H-bonds or base stacking).

DSSR detects triplets and even higher-order base associations by searching horizontally in the plane of the associated bp for further H-bonding interactions. The program determines helical regions by exploring each bp’s neighborhood vertically for base-stacking interactions, regardless of backbone connection (e.g., coaxial stacking of helices or pseudo helices). Moreover, each helix/stem is characterized by a least-squares fitted helical axis to allow for easy quantification of relative helical geometry. DSSR calculates commonly used backbone (including the virtual η/θ) torsion angles, classifies the main chain backbone into BI/BII conformation and the sugar into C2’/C3’-endo like pucker, identifies A-minor interactions (types I and II), ribose zippers, G quartets, hairpin loops, kissing loops, bulges, internal loops and multi-branch loops (junctions). It also detects the existence of pseudo-knots, and outputs RNA secondary structure in the dot-bracket notation.

Experienced 3DNA users may notice that some of the above outlined functionality (e.g., calculation of torsion angles, identification of all pairs, higher order base associations, and helices) have existed for over a decade. Over the years, I have written several posts (see What can 3DNA do for RNA structures?, and links therein) to advocate 3DNA’s applications in RNA structural analysis. Nevertheless, 3DNA has never been widely used in the RNA structure community, for various possible reasons: (1) the misconception that 3DNA is only for DNA (but not RNA); (2) the basic functionality is split into two programs (find_pair and analyze), and needs to be run several times with different options (default find_pair, and with -s, or -p). Thus even though 3DNA is applicable to RNA structures, it is unnecessarily complicated and confusing (especially to new 3DNA users); (3) 3DNA is command-line driven, consisting of many C programs and scripts, with different styles in specifying options. It has the ‘reputation’ of being powerful, but cryptic and hard to use.

I’ve created DSSR from scratch to take consideration of these factors, by employing my extensive experience in supporting 3DNA, an increased knowledge in RNA structures and refined C programming skills. Implemented in ANSI C as a stand-alone command-line program, DSSR is self-contained. Its executables (on MacOS X, Linux and Windows) have zero runtime dependencies. No setup is necessary; simply put the program into a folder of your choice (preferably one on your command PATH), and it should work. DSSR has sensible default settings and an intuitive output, making it directly accessible to a much broader audience than 3DNA per se. Since its initial release on March 3, 2013, I’ve yet to hear any installation or usage problem. So far, all reported bugs have been verified and fixed promptly. The latest beta release has been checked against all nucleic-acid-containing entries in the PDB, without any known issues.

Overall, DSSR consolidates, refines, and significantly extends 3DNA’s functionality for RNA structural analysis. There are more in DSSR than its simple interface suggests. Piecewise, DSSR may appear nothing new, yet combined together, it has unique features not available anywhere else. Its value will be gradually appreciated as DSSR becomes more widely used by the community. Want to know if your structure contains any Hoogsteen pair, sheared G•A pair, or a dinucleotide platform? DSSR can check it for you, easily.

DSSR-beta already possesses all the basic functionality and has been well tested to serve as a handy tool for RNA structural analysis. I stand firmly behind DSSR, and strive to continuously improve the program. Give it a try, and report back on the 3DNA Forum any issues you have. As always, I respond quickly and concretely to all questions posted there. I hope you enjoying using DSSR as much as I enjoy creating and supporting it!

1 This post was published on March 29, 2013, shortly after the beta releases of DSSR [note added on March 15, 2014].

2 DSSR also works for DNA, or DNA-protein complexes, as far as the basic functionality is concerned. Moreover, the acronym could have two other possible interpretations, as would be obvious when the program gains a wider recognition.



Am interested in generating a image of the tertiary structure of a folded RNA molecule. I am a rank amateur at bioinformatics and have very little insight into how to accomplish this. I am unable to open DSSR v1.4.3 on my computer (lenovo G500/intel coreI5 processor with Win10 OS) and am not knowledgeable regarding nonwindows environments. Does 3DNA address this issue?
If not, what program would you recommend?
Many thanks for any guidance,
barry yaffe

— Barry Yaffe · 2015-11-10 21:23 · #


Hi Barry,

Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. To geneate beautiful images of RNA tertiary structures, your best bet would be PyMOL or Jmol. DSSR is an analysis tool, and it is intended to be used with a molecular visualization tool (such as PyMOL or Jmol). See
RNA cartoon-block representations with PyMOL and DSSR or the DSSR-Jmol integration.

Since you mentioned it, DSSR has a Windows version ‘x3dna-dssr.exe’ (on its download page) which should work on Win10.

I noticed your registration on the 3DNA Forum. Please direct further questions there since it is more convenient for such discussions..

Best regards,


— Xiang-Jun · 2015-11-10 21:43 · #



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