Title: Computational Approaches for RNA Energy Parameter Estimation
Speaker: Mirela Andronescu
Department of Computer Science, University of British Columbia

RNA molecules play important roles, including catalysis of chemical reactions and control of gene expression, and their functions largely depend on their folded structures. Since determining these structures by biochemical means is expensive, there is increased demand for computational predictions of RNA structures. One computational approach is to find the secondary structure (a set of base pairs) that minimizes a free energy function for a given RNA conformation. The forces driving RNA folding can be approximated by means of a free energy model, which associates a free energy parameter to a distinct considered feature.

The main goal of this thesis is to develop state-of-the-art computational approaches that can significantly increase the accuracy (i.e., maximize the number of correctly predicted base pairs) of RNA secondary structure prediction methods, by improving and refining the parameters of the underlying RNA free energy model.

We propose two general approaches to estimate RNA free energy parameters. The Constraint Generation (CG) approach is based on iteratively generating constraints that enforce known structures to have energies lower than other structures for the same molecule. The Boltzmann Likelihood (BL) approach infers a set of RNA free energy parameters which maximize the conditional likelihood of a set of known RNA structures. We discuss several variants and extensions of these two approaches, including a linear Gaussian Bayesian network that defines relationships between features. Overall, BL gives slightly better results than CG, but it is over ten times more expensive to run. In addition, CG requires software that is much simpler to implement.

We obtain significant improvements in the accuracy of RNA minimum free energy secondary structure prediction with and without pseudoknots (regions of non-nested base pairs), when measured on large sets of RNA molecules with known structures. For the Turner model, which has been the gold-standard model without pseudoknots for more than a decade, the average prediction accuracy of our new parameters increases from 60% to 71%. For two models with pseudoknots, we obtain an increase of 9% and 6%, respectively. To the best of our knowledge, our parameters are currently state-of-the-art for the three considered models.