Conditioning and Robustness of RNA Boltzmann Sampling under Thermodynamic Parameter Perturbations

Emily Rogers, David Murrugarra, Christine Heitsch

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Understanding how RNA secondary structure prediction methods depend on the underlying nearest-neighbor thermodynamic model remains a fundamental challenge in the field. Minimum free energy (MFE) predictions are known to be “ill conditioned” in that small changes to the thermodynamic model can result in significantly different optimal structures. Hence, the best practice is now to sample from the Boltzmann distribution, which generates a set of suboptimal structures. Although the structural signal of this Boltzmann sample is known to be robust to stochastic noise, the conditioning and robustness under thermodynamic perturbations have yet to be addressed. We present here a mathematically rigorous model for conditioning inspired by numerical analysis, and also a biologically inspired definition for robustness under thermodynamic perturbation. We demonstrate the strong correlation between conditioning and robustness and use its tight relationship to define quantitative thresholds for well versus ill conditioning. These resulting thresholds demonstrate that the majority of the sequences are at least sample robust, which verifies the assumption of sampling's improved conditioning over the MFE prediction. Furthermore, because we find no correlation between conditioning and MFE accuracy, the presence of both well- and ill-conditioned sequences indicates the continued need for both thermodynamic model refinements and alternate RNA structure prediction methods beyond the physics-based ones.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)321-329
Number of pages9
JournalBiophysical Journal
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jul 25 2017

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2017

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biophysics


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