 Research article
 Open Access
A fast and robust iterative algorithm for prediction of RNA pseudoknotted secondary structures
 Hosna Jabbari^{1}Email author and
 Anne Condon^{1}
https://doi.org/10.1186/1471210515147
© Jabbari and Condon; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2014
Received: 7 January 2014
Accepted: 8 May 2014
Published: 18 May 2014
Abstract
Background
Improving accuracy and efficiency of computational methods that predict pseudoknotted RNA secondary structures is an ongoing challenge. Existing methods based on free energy minimization tend to be very slow and are limited in the types of pseudoknots that they can predict. Incorporating known structural information can improve prediction accuracy; however, there are not many methods for prediction of pseudoknotted structures that can incorporate structural information as input. There is even less understanding of the relative robustness of these methods with respect to partial information.
Results
We present a new method, Iterative HFold, for pseudoknotted RNA secondary structure prediction. Iterative HFold takes as input a pseudoknotfree structure, and produces a possibly pseudoknotted structure whose energy is at least as low as that of any (density2) pseudoknotted structure containing the input structure. Iterative HFold leverages strengths of earlier methods, namely the fast running time of HFold, a method that is based on the hierarchical folding hypothesis, and the energy parameters of HotKnots V2.0.
Our experimental evaluation on a large data set shows that Iterative HFold is robust with respect to partial information, with average accuracy on pseudoknotted structures steadily increasing from roughly 54% to 79% as the user provides up to 40% of the input structure.
Iterative HFold is much faster than HotKnots V2.0, while having comparable accuracy. Iterative HFold also has significantly better accuracy than IPknot on our HKPK and IPpk168 data sets.
Conclusions
Iterative HFold is a robust method for prediction of pseudoknotted RNA secondary structures, whose accuracy with more than 5% information about true pseudoknotfree structures is better than that of IPknot, and with about 35% information about true pseudoknotfree structures compares well with that of HotKnots V2.0 while being significantly faster. Iterative HFold and all data used in this work are freely available at http://www.cs.ubc.ca/~hjabbari/software.php.
Keywords
Background
RNA molecules are crucial in different levels of cellular function, ranging from translation and regulation of genes to coding for proteins [1–6]. Understanding the structure of an RNA molecule is important in inferring its function [7–10]. Since experimental methods for determining RNA structure, such as Xray, crystallography and NMR, are time consuming, expensive and in some cases infeasible, computational methods for prediction of RNA structure are valuable.
Currently computational RNA structure prediction methods mainly focus on predicting RNA secondary structure—the set of base pairs that form when RNA molecules fold. When multiple homologous (evolutionarily related) RNA sequences are available, the secondary structure of the sequences can be predicted using multiple sequence alignment and comparative sequence analysis [11–22]. Alternative approaches, which can be used to predict secondary structure of a single sequence, are based on thermodynamic parameters derived in part from experimental data [23]. While thermodynamicsbased approaches can be less accurate than comparativebased algorithms, thermodynamicsbased approaches are applicable in cases of novel RNAs such as the many RNAs of unknown function recently reported by the ENCODE consortium [24]. Thermodynamicsbased approaches can also be easier to apply to prediction of the structure of interacting RNA molecules, for example, in gene knockdown studies.
Many computational thermodynamicsbased methods find the structures with the minimum free energy (MFE) from the set of all possible structures, when each structure feature is assigned a free energy value and the energy of a structure is calculated as the sum of the features’ energies. There has been significant success in prediction of pseudoknotfree secondary structures (structures with no crossing base pairs) [23, 25, 26]. While many small RNA secondary structures are pseudoknotfree, many biologically important RNA molecules, both in the cell [27, 28], and in viral RNA [29] are found to be pseudoknotted.
Since finding the MFE pseudoknotted secondary structure is NPhard [30–32], polynomial time MFEbased methods for prediction of pseudoknotted secondary structures predict a restricted class of pseudoknotted structures [33–35]. These methods trade off runtime complexity and the generality of the class of structures they can predict. For example, the most general algorithm of Rivas and Eddy [33], whose running time is Θ(n^{6}) on inputs of length n, is not practical for RNA sequences of length more than 100 nucleotides. This has been the main reason for development of heuristic methods for prediction of pseudoknotted structures [36–41]. Although heuristic methods may not find the MFE structure, they usually run faster than the MFEbased methods that handle the same class of structures. For example, HotKnots V2.0 [36, 41] is a heuristic approach that uses carefully trained energy parameters, is guided by energy minimization and can handle kissing hairpin structures. However, HotKnots is still slow on long sequences.
Other methods for prediction of pseudoknotted structures, such as the IPknot method of Sato et al. [42], are motivated by the finding of Mathews [43] that base pairs with high base pairing probabilities in the thermodynamic ensemble are more likely to be in the known structure. In a comprehensive comparison performed by Puton et al. [44] on the performance of publicly available noncomparative RNA secondary structure prediction methods that can handle pseudoknotted structures, IPknot ranks first for general length RNA sequences.
Incorporating known structural information can improve the accuracy of structure prediction. For example, Mathews et al. [45] used SHAPE reactivity data to improve the prediction accuracy from 26.3% to 86.8% for 5S rRNA of E. coli. Roughly, the larger the SHAPE reactivity value for a given nucleotide, the more likely it is that the nucleotide is unpaired in the structure. However, limited SHAPE reactivity data is available, and the data does not unambiguously determine whether a base is paired or not or, if it is paired, to what other nucleotide. Deigan et al. [46] created pseudo energy terms from SHAPE reactivity data, as a means of integrating such data into prediction software. They reported prediction accuracy of 96% to 100% for three moderatesized RNAs (<200 nucleotides) and for 16S rRNA (1500 nucleotides). ShapeKnots [47] is a new method for incorporating SHAPE reactivity data for pseudoknotted structures that incorporates the pseudo energy terms into a heuristic method similar to that of Ren et al. [41].
We previously presented HFold [48], an approach for prediction of pseudoknotted structures, motivated by two goals, namely to avoid the high running time complexity of other methods for pseudoknotted secondary structure prediction and to leverage the hierarchical folding hypothesis. This hypothesis posits that an RNA molecule first folds into a pseudoknotfree structure; then additional base pairs are added that may form pseudoknots with the first structure so as to lower the structure’s free energy [49]. Given a pseudoknotfree structure as input, HFold predicts a possibly pseudoknotted structure from a broad class that contains the given input structure and, relative to that constraint, has minimum free energy. HFold’s running time is O(n^{3}), significantly faster than other methods for predicting pseudoknotted structures. Several experts have provided evidence for, and support, the hierarchical folding hypothesis [49–52]. The class of structures that HFold can handle, density2 structures, is quite general and includes many important pseudoknots including Htype pseudoknots, kissing hairpins and infinite chains of interleaved bands, with arbitrary nested (pseudoknotted) substructures. (Roughly, a structure is density2 if no base is enclosed by more than two overlapping pseudoknotted stems.)
Another advantage of HFold over heuristic methods such as HotKnots or ShapeKnots is that unlike these methods, HFold minimizes the free energy of the possibly pseudoknotted output structure relative to the given input structure. Therefore HFold’s method of adding pseudoknotted stems is better motivated energetically than that of HotKnots or ShapeKnots.
While HFold is fast, our earlier implementation of HFold had its own shortcomings. First, due to a high pseudoknot initiation penalty in its underlying energy model, many of its predicted structures did not have pseudoknots. Also low band penalty (i.e., penalty for addition of pseudoknotted stems or bands) in its energy model encouraged addition of pseudoknotted stems when a pseudoknot was predicted. Second, if the first structure input to HFold contains base pairs that are not in the true pseudoknotfree structure for the given RNA sequence or is not the complete pseudoknotfree structure (i.e., it does not include all the base pairs in the pseudoknotfree structure), HFold is often unable to predict the known pseudoknotted structure as output.
To summarize, existing methods for prediction of pseudoknotted structures suffer from one or both of the following shortcomings: 1) slow running time, or 2) poor prediction accuracy. Moreover there is limited opportunity for the user to provide structural information, or constraints, that can guide prediction. In cases of a prediction method that incorporates userdefined constraints, it is also useful to understand the degree to which the method’s accuracy persists as the input information degrades. We use the term robustness with respect to partial information or robustness to refer to this property of a method. (We note that in our definition of robustness we do not mean robust with respect to noise.) To the best of our knowledge, the concept of robustness in secondary structure prediction methods has not been studied before.
In this work we present a new method that addresses these shortcomings. Our method, Iterative HFold, takes a pseudoknotfree input structure and produces a possibly pseudoknotted structure whose energy is at least as low as that of any (density2) pseudoknotted structure containing the input structure. Iterative HFold incorporates four different methods and reports as its final structure the structure with the lowest energy, among all structures produced by these methods. While one of its underlying methods, HFold, strictly adheres to the hierarchical folding hypothesis, the other three use iterations to extend or remove the base pairs of input structure, with the goal of finding a structure that has lower energy than the structure found by HFold. Thus, unlike HFold, iterative HFold is able to modify the input structure (while the class of structures handled by both methods is the same). This is valuable since 1) computationally produced structures may not be completely accurate and 2) while the hierarchical folding hypothesis is a useful guiding principle, there is evidence that allowing for disruption of some base pairs in the initially formed pseudoknotfree secondary structure can improve prediction [53, 54].
All of Iterative HFold’s underlying methods use the energy model of HotKnots V2.0 DP09 [36]; with this model, HFold obtained predictions with higher accuracy than those obtained with our earlier implementation of HFold. One of Iterative HFold’s underlying methods is HFoldPKonly, which given the input structure only adds pseudoknotted base pairs. HFoldPKonly is especially useful for cases when the user has either complete information about the true pseudoknotfree structure or wants to check whether a single stem of the input structure can be part of a pseudoknot since, if the input structure only has the specific stem in question, the output structure of HFoldPKonly will determine if the given stem can be part of a pseudoknot.
Based on our experiments on our HKPK and HKPKfree data sets that include 88 pseudoknotted structures, and 337 pseudoknotfree structures respectively, ranging in length from 10 to 400 nucleotides, a single run of Iterative HFold does not take more than 9 seconds time and 62 MB of memory. In contrast, one of the best heuristic methods, HotKnots V2.0, takes 1.7 hours and 91 GB of memory for a sequence with 400 nucleotides. Therefore our method is practical for prediction of long RNA structures. Iterative HFold bootstrap 95% percentile confidence interval for average accuracy of pseudoknotted structures of the HKPK data set is significantly higher than that of IPknot, ((72.83%, 83.37%) vs. (54.56%, 66.25%)) and is comparable to that of HotKnots V2.0, (vs. (73.60%, 83.35%)) two of the best prediction methods available. Iterative HFold’s accuracy is significantly higher than that of IPknot and HotKnots on our IPpk168 data set. Iterative HFold also has higher accuracy than HFold even when just partial information about the true pseudoknotfree structure is provided, so it is more robust than HFold. Specifically, Iterative HFold’s average accuracy on pseudoknotted structures steadily increases from roughly 54% to 79% as the user provides up to 40% of the input structure, and improves with a more modest but still positive improvement in accuracy when further structural information is provided.
Methods
We represent an RNA molecule by a sequence, S, of its four bases, Adenine (A), Cytosine (C), Guanine (G) and Uracil (U). We denote the length of the RNA molecule by n and refer to each base by its index i, 1≤i≤n.
If i.j and k.l are two base pairs of a secondary structure, R, and 1≤i<k<j<l≤n, we say i.j crosses k.l. We refer to a secondary structure with crossing base pairs as a pseudoknotted secondary structure and a secondary structure with no crossing base pairs as a pseudoknotfree secondary structure (see Figure 1). Figure 1 shows different kinds of loops in a secondary structure. We refer the readers to Jabbari et al. [48] or Rastegari et al. [56] for precise definition and illustration of terms used in the figure.
Energy model
Energy parameters
Name  Description  Value (Kcal/mol) 

P _{ s }  Exterior pseudoloop  −1.38 
initiation penalty  
P _{ s m }  Penalty for introducing pseudoknot  10.07 
inside a multiloop  
P _{ s p }  Penalty for introducing pseudoknot  15.00 
inside a pseudoloop  
P _{ b }  Band penalty  2.46 
P _{ u p }  Penalty for unpaired base  0.06 
in a pseudoloop  
P _{ p s }  Penalty for closed subregion  0.96 
inside a pseudoloop  
e_{ H }(i,j)  Energy of a hairpin loop closed by i.j  
e_{ S }(i,j)  Energy of stacked pair closed by i.j  
e_{ s t P }(i,j)  Energy of stacked pair that  0.89×e_{ S }(i,j) 
spans a band  
e_{ i n t }(i,r,r^{′},j)  Energy of a pseudoknotfree  
internal loop  
e_{ i n t P }(i,r,r^{′},j)  Energy of internal loop  0.74×e_{ i n t }(i,r,r^{′},j) 
that spans a band  
a  Multiloop initiation penalty  3.39 
b  Multiloop base pair penalty  0.03 
c  Penalty for unpaired base  0.02 
in a multiloop  
a ^{′}  Penalty for introducing a multiloop  3.41 
that spans a band  
b ^{′}  Base pair penalty for a multiloop  0.56 
that spans a band  
c ^{′}  Penalty for unpaired base in a multiloop  0.12 
that spans a band 
Data sets
We use three data sets to analyze performance of our algorithms. Our first data set is the test data set of Andronescu et al. [36], that contains 446 distinct RNA sequences and their reference structures, of which 348 are pseudoknotfree and 98 are pseudoknotted. This set has four structures that are not in the class of structures our methods can handle (i.e., have densities higher than 2 [48]). Since the number of such structures is too small to be useful in an experimental analysis, we removed them from our set of pseudoknotted structures, resulting in a set of size 442.
There are eight cases in this data set for which the original sequence and structure were shortened to accommodate restrictions in length. We removed them from our data set, resulting in a set of size 425. From now on we use “HKPK” to refer to the pseudoknotted structures in this set (with 88 structures) and “HKPKfree” to refer to the pseudoknotfree structures in this set (with 337 structures). RNA sequences in HKPK and HKPKfree have length between 10 and 400 nucleotides.
Our second data set is the pk168 data set of Sato et al. [42]. This set contains 168 pseudoknotted structures from 16 categories of pseudoknots. The sequences in this set have at most 85% similarity and have length of at most 140 nucleotides. We refer to this data set as “IPpk168”.
Our third data set is the test data set of Sperschneider et al. [57]. This set contains 16 pseudoknotted structures with strong experimental support. RNA sequences in this set have length between 34 and 363 nucleotides. We refer to this data set as “DKpk16”.
Definition of G_{ b i g } and G_{ s m a l l }
To test the robustness of our methods on a given RNA sequence, we need to provide partial information about the true pseudoknotfree structure as input structure for that sequence. To obtain the true pseudoknotfree structure, G_{ big }, we remove the minimum number of pseudoknotted base pairs from the reference structure to make the reference structure pseudoknotfree. If the reference structure is pseudoknotfree, then G_{ big } is the same as the reference structure itself. We call the removed base pairs from the reference structure G_{ small }. Blue base pairs in Figure 1 represent base pairs of the G_{ big } structure and green base pairs represent the G_{ small } structure.
Accuracy measures
We also define these values as 0 when their denominators are 0. When a prediction agrees with the reference structure, the value of Fmeasure is equal to 1 (so are the values of sensitivity and PPV). When the values of sensitivity or PPV is equal to 0, the predicted structure does not have any base pairs in common with the reference structure.
Bootstrap percentile confidence intervals
To formally assess the dependency of measured prediction accuracy of results of a method on a given set of RNA we use bootstrap confidence intervals, a wellknown statistical resampling technique [59, 60]. Following the recent work of Aghaeepour and Hoos [61] and Hajiaghayi et al. [58] we calculate the bootstrap 95% percentile confidence interval of average Fmeasure as follows. For each vector f of Fmeasures (where, for example, f may be the Fmeasures of predictions obtained by Iterative HFold on pseudoknotted structures) we first take 10^{4} resamples with replacement, where the resamples have the same length as the original sample vector f (f), and then calculate their average Fmeasures. These 10^{4} calculated average Fmeasures represent the bootstrap distribution for the vector f. We then report the 2.5th and 97.5th percentile of this distribution (i.e., the bootstrap distribution of the 10^{4} average Fmeasures calculated above) as the lower and upper bounds of the confidence interval respectively, and call it the bootstrap 95% percentile confidence interval. By reporting the bootstrap 95% percentile confidence interval for average Fmeasure of a method, A, on a data set, D, we say that we are 95% confident that the average Fmeasure of method A on data set D is in the reported interval. All calculations are performed using the “boot” package of the R statistics software environment [62].
Permutation test
Following the recent work of Hajiaghayi et al. [58], we use a two sided permutation test to assess the statistical significance of the observed performance differences between two methods. The test proceeds as follows, given a data set and two structure prediction procedures, A and B. First, we calculate the difference m e a n(f_{ A })−m e a n(f_{ B }) in means between sets of Fmeasure values obtained by A and B. Then we combine the two sets f_{ A } and f_{ B } and record the difference in sample means for 10^{4} randomly chosen ways of choosing two sets with the same size as f_{ A } and f_{ B } from the combined set. The pvalue is the proportion of the sampled permutations where the absolute difference was greater than or equal to that of absolute difference of the means of sets f_{ A } and f_{ B }. Then, if the pvalue of this test is less than the 5% significance level, we reject the null hypothesis that methods A and B have equal accuracy and thus accept the alternative hypothesis that the difference in accuracy of method A and B is significant. Otherwise, we cannot reject the null hypothesis. All calculations are performed using the “perm” package of the R statistics software environment.
Iterative HFold
We provide a high level description of our Iterative HFold algorithm.
Pseudocode of our Iterative HFold algorithm is available in Additional file 1. The algorithm builds on two simpler methods, the first being our original HFold algorithm [48]: HFold: Given an RNA sequence, S, and a pseudoknotfree input structure, G, find a pseudoknotfree structure, G^{′} such that G∪G^{′} is the lowest energy structure that contains G. We note that G∪G^{′} might not be pseudoknotted.
The second method on which Iterative HFold builds, called HFoldPKonly, is similar to HFold except that G^{′} may only contain base pairs that cross base pairs in G. The prediction provided by HFoldPKonly can be useful in cases where HFold does not produce a pseudoknotted structure. HFoldPKonly: Given an RNA sequence, S, and a pseudoknotfree input structure, G, find a pseudoknotfree structure, G^{′} such that every base pair in G^{′} crosses some base pair of G and such that G∪G^{′} is the lowest energy structure that contains G among all such G^{′}s. Note that G^{′} may contain no base pairs.
Iterative HFold also uses the SimFold RNA secondary structure prediction method [63], which predicts the minimum free energy pseudoknotfree secondary structure for a given RNA sequence. SimFold uses a dynamic programming method similar to Zuker’s MFold method [64]. In this work we used the HotKnots energy parameters when running SimFold. In addition to an RNA sequence, S, SimFold can also take a pseudoknotfree secondary structure, G, as input and predict the MFE pseudoknotfree secondary structure that contains all base pairs of G.
Iterative HFold is distinguished from the above three methods, namely HFold, HFoldPKonly and SimFold, in two important ways. First, the output of HFold, HFoldPKonly and SimFold methods must contain the given pseudoknotfree input structure, G, whereas Iterative HFold may modify the input structure. This can be useful when the given input structure is not a highaccuracy estimate of G_{ b i g }, the true pseudoknotfree substructure of the reference structure. Second, while HFold and HFoldPKonly can add base pairs that cross those in G, they cannot add base pairs that cross each other, and neither can SimFold. In contrast, Iterative HFold can add base pairs that cross each other. This is particularly useful when the input structure contains limited information about G_{ big }, and so it is necessary both to predict base pairs in G_{ big } and in G_{ small } in order to get a good prediction.
Iterative HFold is comprised of four different iterative methods. Following the description of each method, we motivate why we chose to include it as part of our overall algorithm. Iterative HFold takes as input both an RNA sequence, S and a pseudoknotfree secondary structure, G; later we show that structure G can be produced by computational methods, for example, HotKnots hotspots or SimFold suboptimal structures, when only the sequence S is initially available. Iterative HFold: Given an RNA sequence, S, and a pseudoknot free input structure, G, run the following four methods and pick the structure with the lowest free energy among these four as the output structure.
Iterative HFold runs in O(n^{3}) time, as it runs four methods sequentially, when each one is O(n^{3}).
Method 1: Run HFold on S and G, and store the resulting G∪G^{′}.
Motivation: This is the core HFold method, motivated by the hierarchical folding hypothesis.
Method 2: First run HFoldPKonly on S and G. If HFoldPKonly results in a structure G∪G^{′} such that G^{′} is not the empty structure, then run HFold with sequence S and structure G^{′}, and store the result. Otherwise, simply store G as the result. See the following example. (We note that running HFold with S and G^{′} results in a structure G^{′}∪G^{′′}, where it may be the case that G^{′′}≠G (i.e., G may not be part of the result of method 2).)
Motivation: When input structure G does not agree with the reference G_{ big } structure, it may still be the case that HFoldPKonly finds the pseudoknotted structure G_{ small } (or a good approximation to G_{ small }). A call to HFold with input G_{ small } may then find a better approximation to G_{ big }.
In this example, method 2 of Iterative HFold outperforms method 1: although both HFold and HFold PKonly produce the same result on sequence S and input structure G, namely the structure $G\cup {G}^{{}^{\prime}}$, the additional iteration in method 2, in which HFold is run with S and ${G}^{{}^{\prime}}$, finds a structure with lower energy than that of $G\cup {G}^{{}^{\prime}}$.
Method 3: First run SimFold on S and G to obtain result G^{′}—a pseudoknotfree structure that contains G. Then let G_{ updated } be the secondary structure of S containing the relaxed stems of G^{′} that include the base pairs of G. By a relaxed stem, we mean a secondary structure containing stacked base pairs, bulges of size 1 and internal loops of maximum size of 3 (i.e., either the symmetric loop of 1×1 or the nonsymmetric loop of 1×2 or 2×1 but no other loop types; this is motivated by common practice [65]). Then run method 2 on S and G_{ updated }, and store the result. See Example 2.
Motivation: This method can work well when the given input structure has a small number of base pairs from G_{ big }, because G_{ updated } contains stems that includes these base pairs, but avoids “overcrowding” with further base pairs that might prevent HFoldPKonly from finding pseudoknotted stems.
In this example, method 3 of Iterative HFold outperforms the other methods. Because the input structure G consists of just one base pair, method 1 (HFold) outputs a pseudoknotfree structure containing G. The output of both methods 2 and 4 are pseudoknotted but do not contain the base pair of the input structure G. In contrast, method 3 first adds base pairs to G, resulting in the pseudoknotfree structure G_{ updated }, and then adds additional pseudoknotted base pairs via method 2.
Method 4: Let S_{1} be the subsequence of S obtained by removing bases that are external unpaired bases with respect to input structure G. Run SimFold on S_{1} and G (with base indices renumbered to agree with S_{1}), to obtain pseudoknotfree structure G^{′}. Then continue exactly as in method 3. See Example 3.
Motivation: This method is very similar to method 3, but further constrains G^{′} since the base pairs in G^{′} cannot involve bases that are removed from S to obtain S_{1}. This potentially increases the possibilities for pseudoknotted base pairs to be added by method 2.
In this example, method 4 of Iterative HFold outperforms the other methods. The input structure G has a high energy value and neither method 1 (HFold) nor method 2 (HFoldPKonly) can expand the pseudoknotfree structure to add the pseudoknotted stem. Also, by adding too many pseudoknotfree base pairs, method 3 fails to find the pseudoknotted base pairs. Thus, method 4 performs better than methods 1, 2 and 3.
Experimental settings
In this section we explain details of our computational experiments.
Robustness test
One of our goals is to understand the degree to which our methods are robust with respect to partial information, that is, provide a reliable prediction even when limited information about the true pseudoknotfree structure, G_{ big }, is available. For this purpose we generate subset structures of the corresponding G_{ big }, for each RNA sequence in the HKPK and HKPKfree data sets. For each α, 0.05≤α≤0.95 with 0.05 steps, we choose each base pair of G_{ big } structure with probability α. We also generate 1% information and 99% information about the G_{ big } structure (i.e., α=0.01 and α=0.99). We repeat this step 100 times to generate 100 substructures of G_{ big } for each value of α for each RNA sequence in our data sets. We then run our methods on all 100 substructures for each RNA sequence in our data sets and α value and calculate the bootstrap 95% percentile confidence interval for average Fmeasure of these 100 cases as the accuracy interval for each method and each RNA sequence and α value in our data set.
We also compare our methods when the true pseudoknotfree structure, G_{ big } is provided.
Accuracy comparison tests
We compare the accuracy of HFold, HFoldPKonly and Iterative HFold with each other on different input structures, and with other methods, namely SimFold [63], HotKnots V2.0 [36, 41] and IPknot [42]. We first describe the latter two methods and the settings we choose for our experiments. We then describe the ways in which we choose input structures for HFold and its variants.
HotKnots
HotKnots is a heuristic program that given an RNA sequence, first finds about 20 lowest energy stems (from the set of all stems for the given RNA sequence), called hotspots. Then keeping all these stems, it adds other nonoverlapping low energy stems to the stems found in the first step, so as to minimize the energy of the overall structure, eventually producing up to 20 output structures. In our experiments, we choose the structure with the lowest energy value among the 20 output structures as the final structure predicted by HotKnots. When reporting prediction accuracy for HotKnots, we report the bootstrap 95% percentile confidence interval for the average Fmeasure of the lowest energy structure for all RNA sequences in our data set.
IPknot
IPknot is a secondary structure prediction method based on Maximum Expected Accuracy (MEA) of the base pairs. In addition to the RNA sequence, IPknot gets several parameters as input. Following, we describe each of these parameters and settings briefly.

level: If structure G can be decomposed into k disjoint pseudoknotfree structures, G_{1},G_{2},…,G_{ k }, such that every base pair in G_{ i } crosses the base pairs of G_{ j }, 1≤i≤j≤k, Sato et al. say that structure G has k levels. For example, a pseudoknotfree structure has level 1, and an Htype pseudoknot has level 2. In another example, when representing the secondary structure in dot bracket format, the number of different brackets used to represent the structure is the level of the structure. IPknot can handle structures up to level 3.

scoring model: The energy model used to produce posterior probabilities for each base pair is called “scoring model”. IPknot has 3 different scoring models, namely “CONTRAfold”, “McCaskill” and “NUPACK”.

refining parameters: The procedure of recalculating the base pair probabilities based on the original prediction results is referred to as “refining parameters”.

base pair weights for each level: Positive numbers representing the rate of true base pairs in each level.
We run IPknot using the provided source code and the default parameters for scoring model and level (i.e., scoring model = McCaskill and level =2). The default values provided for base pair weights are not the same on the IPknot website (i.e., γ_{1}=2 and γ_{2}=16), its source code (i.e., for some cases γ_{1}=2 and γ_{2}=4 and for others γ_{1}=1 and γ_{2}=1) and the provided perl script (i.e., γ_{1}=4 and γ_{2}=8). We run IPknot with all of these values with and without refinement and provide IPknot’s bootstrap 95% confidence intervals for average Fmeasures for all of our data sets as a table in the Additional file 2. Based on its performance we present IPknot’s results with default settings (i.e., no refinement, scoring model = McCaskill and level =2) and γ_{1}=4 and γ_{2}=8, for comparison with other methods.
Different versions of HFold
We compare the average accuracy of HFold, HFoldPKonly and Iterative HFold with different input structures.
To determine which input structures are good to use when G_{ big } is not known, we compare two different options. Since HFold (HFoldPKonly and Iterative HFold) cannot accept pseudoknotted input structures we use the following methods to produce pseudoknotfree input structures to HFold (HFoldPKonly and Iterative HFold). First, we use HotKnots hotspots [36], i.e., the 20 lowest energy pseudoknotfree stems produced in the first phase of HotKnots. We choose the lowest free energy structure predicted by each of our methods as their final prediction given these hotspots. Second, we use SimFold’s MFE structure [63] where the energy parameters of SimFold are changed to match that of HotKnots V2.0.
Running time
We ran all methods on the same platform (Macbook pro. OS X 10.5.8 with 2.53 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor and 4 GB 1067 MHz DDR3 RAM). We use the time command to measure the running time of our methods on each sequence, and record the wall clock time.
Memory usage
To find the memory usage of the programs, we use the Valgrind package [66] and record the total heap usage as memory usage of each program. IPknot and HotKnots are completely written in C and so we can easily find their memory usage by running Valgrind. However, Iterative HFold program is a perl script that runs a few C programs (HFold, HFoldpkonly and SimFold) sequentially. So we find the memory usage of each C component using Valgrind and assign the maximum as the memory usage of Iterative HFold.
Results
As mentioned in Section ‘Background’, in the literature on hierarchical folding, there are reports of counter examples to the hierarchical folding hypothesis where bases that are initially part of the pseudoknotfree structure for a molecule later change as the pseudoknot forms. This motivates a comparison of HFold versus Iterative HFold, in order to see how a method that sticks strictly with the hypothesis (i.e., HFold) compares with a method that allows for some base changes (i.e., Iterative HFold). In Section ‘Robustness comparison’, we compare the robustness of HFold and Iterative HFold with respect to partial information; that is, the degree to which they provide accurate predictions as a function of how much information about G_{ big }, the true pseudoknotfree secondary structure, is provided as input. Then in Section ‘Accuracy comparison of different versions of HFold’ we compare HFold, HFoldPKonly and Iterative HFold when a (possibly inaccurate) computational prediction of G_{ big } is provided as input. In Section ‘Accuracy comparison with existing methods’ we compare Iterative HFold—the method that performs best overall in Sections ‘Robustness comparison’ and ‘Accuracy comparison of different versions of HFold’ —with existing methods for pseudoknotted secondary structure prediction. Sections ‘Running time comparison’ and ‘Memory consumption comparison’ report on the running time and memory usage of our methods.
Robustness comparison
As shown in Figure 2A, which pertains to pseudoknotted structures of the HKPK data set, when provided with ≈1% of the G_{ big } structure as input, Iterative HFold’s bootstrap 95% percentile confidence interval of average Fmeasures has higher accuracy than those of HFold. Iterative HFold continues to be significantly superior to HFold until approximately 90% of G_{ big } is available, after which HFold is more accurate. Iterative HFold is most successful when little information about G_{ big } is known because it can add both pseudoknotfree and pseudoknotted base pairs. In particular, using methods 3 and 4 (see Section ‘Iterative HFold’) Iterative HFold first finds a low energy pseudoknotfree structure that includes the given input structure (by extending the stems of the given structure), and then adds pseudoknotted base pairs to further lower the energy of the overall structure. However, when the vast majority of base pairs of G_{ big } are provided as input, HFold dominates as it keeps the base pairs of the input structure, thereby often adding base pairs of G_{ small }. When 100% of G_{ big } is provided as input, HFold’s bootstrap 95% percentile confidence interval is (85.74%,91.87%), compared with (79.36%,87.41%) for Iterative HFold. As shown in Figure 2A, Iterative HFold’s average accuracy on pseudoknotted structures steadily increases from about 54% to 79% as the user provides 1% to 40% of the input structure. This improvement in accuracy slows down but still persists when further structural information is provided. If we compare the slope of the curve for Iterative HFold’s average accuracy to that of HFold in Figure 2A, we can see that HFold’s slope is steeper than that of Iterative HFold, making Iterative HFold more robust than HFold.
For pseudoknotfree structures of the HKPKfree data set, as shown in Figure 2B, HFold performs better than Iterative HFold. Even with 1% information about G_{ big }, HFold results in (79.76%,84.32%)95% bootstrap confidence interval in comparison with (79.14%,83.84%) for Iterative HFold with the same inputs. Roughly, HFold’s success for pseudoknotfree structures is because it often adds base pairs that do not cross those provided as part of the input, and thus are likely to be in G_{ big }.
When 100% of G_{ big } is provided as input, the overall bootstrap 95% confidence interval for HFold is (96.11%,97.24%) compared with (93.85%,96.07%) for Iterative HFold.
Accuracy comparison of different versions of HFold
Comparison of bootstrap 95% percentile confidence interval of average Fmeasure of different versions of HFold when given SimFold structure as input vs. when given HotKnots hotspots structures as input
Input  Hotspots  SimFold (MFE)  

PKonly  HFold  Iter. HFold  PKonly  HFold  Iter. HFold  
HKPK  (55.54, 71.06)  (73.35, 83.53)  (72.83, 83.37)  (50.57, 63.53)  (50.69, 63.54)  (51.42, 64.39) 
HKPKfree  (31.37, 38.52)  (75.53, 80.79)  (74.93, 80.26)  (78.42, 83.21)  (78.33, 83.27)  (78.31, 83.17) 
For pseudoknotted structures, using HotKnots hotspots as input is far superior to using SimFold as input, for both HFold and Iterative HFold. This appears to be because MFE structures predicted by SimFold tend to have more base pairs than the true pseudoknot free structure, G_{ big }, so that HFold and Iterative HFold are unlikely to add pseudoknotted base pairs to the input structure. For pseudoknotfree structures, using SimFold as input is somewhat better than using HotKnots hotspots, but the permutation test indicates that the difference is not significant.
The confidence intervals for HFold and Iterative HFold with HotKnots hotspots are (73.35%, 83.53%) and (72.83%, 83.37%), respectively, and on pseudoknotfree structures they are (75.53%, 80.79%) and (74.93%, 80.26%) respectively. Again, based on the result of the permutation test, the difference in the results of HFold and Iterative HFold on pseudoknotted and pseudoknotfree structures are not significant. Similarly, the permutation test shows that the difference in prediction accuracy of HFold and Iterative HFold on SimFold input is not significant.
Accuracy comparison with existing methods
For comparisons with other methods already in the literature, we choose to use our Iterative HFold method with HotKnots hotspots as input structure, based on its overall good accuracies in Section ‘Accuracy comparison of different versions of HFold’. We compare this method with two of the bestperforming methods [44] for prediction of pseudoknotted structures, namely HotKnots V2.0 [36], a MFEbased heuristic method, and IPknot [42], a method that is based on maximum expected accuracy. (Prepared by Puton et al. [44], CompaRNA, is the website for continuous comparison of RNA secondary structure methods on both PDB data set and RNA strand. We chose IPknot because it was the bestperforming noncomparative pseudoknot prediction method that can handle long RNA sequences, based on the ranking on their website as of March 25, 2014. We also noticed that Puton et al. used HotKnots V1 for their comparison, and not the more recently available and better performing HotKnots V2.0. Therefore we chose to include HotKnots in our comparisons as well. Since the focus of this paper is on prediction of pseudoknotted structures, we do not compare our results with that of CoFold [26] or other methods for prediction of pseudoknot free structures.)
Comparison of bootstrap 95% percentile confidence interval of average Fmeasure with existing methods
Input  Iter. HFold  HotKnots  SimFold  IPknot 

(hotspots)  (default)  
HKPK  (72.83, 83.37)  (73.60, 83.35)  (45.34, 57.73)  (54.56, 66.25) 
HKPKfree  (74.93, 80.26)  (76.74, 81.95)  (78.78, 83.55)  (77.31, 81.79) 
Comparison of bootstrap 95% percentile confidence interval of average Fmeasure with existing methods on the DKpk16 and the IPpk168 data sets
Input  Iter. HFold  HotKnots  IPknot 

(hotspots)  (default)  
DKpk16  (68.05, 81.85)  (69.11, 83.81)  (65.42, 75.81) 
IPpk168  (72.65, 79.86)  (65.51, 72.96)  (58.20, 66.09) 
Running time comparison
IPknot is significantly faster than both HFold and Iterative HFold. For all sequences in this data set, IPknot produces output in less than 0.8 seconds. For detailed information about performance of each method see Additional file 4.
Memory consumption comparison
Here we present memory consumption of HFold, Iterative HFold and HotKnots on our HKPK pseudoknotted structures. Since HotKnots predicts and keeps about 20 structures in memory, its memory consumption can vary significantly from one sequence to another, and is not predictable. Up until 47 bases, HotKnots some times uses less memory than HFold or Iterative HFold, but for RNA sequences with 47 bases or longer, HotKnots uses much more memory than HFold and Iterative HFold. Iterative HFold’s memory usage is very similar to HFold’s and increases at a very low rate by the length of the RNA sequence. It starts from 48.69 MB for RNA sequences of length 26 and increases to 61.33 MB for the longest RNA sequence in this data set (400 bases long). HotKnots, however, uses as little as 16.53 MB for an RNA of length 30 bases (LPPK1) and as much as 93419 MB for the longest RNA sequence in this data set.
IPknot uses much less memory than all other methods. For the longest RNA sequence in this data set, IPknot uses less than 5.5 MB of memory in comparison to 61.33 MB of HFold and Iterative HFold and 93419 MB of HotKnots. For detailed information about memory usage of each method see Additional file 4.
Discussion
In Section ‘Comparison with Hotknots and IPknot’ we provide more insight on the differences and merits of Iterative HFold, HotKnots and IPknots. Then in Section ‘Comparison with ShapeKnots’ we compare accuracy of Iterative HFold with ShapeKnots, a method that incorporates SHAPE reactivity data to predict RNA pseudoknotted secondary structure. In Section ‘Iterative HFold with SimFold’s suboptimal structures’ we compare performance accuracy of Iterative HFold with two inputs: HotKnots hotspots and suboptimal structures. Section ‘Energy model’ provides more insight into the energy model used in this work.
Comparison with Hotknots and IPknot
Comparing accuracy of Iterative HFold and HotKnots V2.0 on HKPK, HKPKfree, DKpk16 and IPpk168, we found that the difference in their accuracies is insignificant on HKPK, HKPKfree and DKpk16 data sets when Iterative HFold is provided with HotKnots hotspots as input. Based on our results on the HKPK data set, with only about 15% information about the true pseudoknotfree structures, Iterative HFold’s 95% percentile confidence interval is (65.08%;73.36%) (data shown in Additional file 3). If the user has about 35% information about the true pseudoknotfree structure, Iterative HFold’s accuracy is comparable with that of HotKnots (i.e., (74.18%;82.30%) vs. (73.60%;83.35%)). However Iterative HFold’s accuracy (with hotspots as input) is significantly better than that of HotKnots on the IPpk168 data set. One of the advantages of Iterative HFold over HotKnots is that in Iterative HFold base pairs are added to lower the energy of the given structure while in HotKnots stems are added in a way that does not take into account the energy of stems in the previous steps.
When reporting on time and memory consumption of Iterative HFold and HotKnots on the HKPK data set, we did not include the time and memory required to get the input structures to Iterative HFold. Since we only run HotKnots V2.0 partially to produce hotspots it does not take as long as running HotKnots and does not consume as much memory. For example, for the 400 nucleotides long RNA sequence in our data set (A.tum.RNaseP), it only takes 0.5 seconds time and 4 MB of memory to produce the hotspots. (The time required to get the hotspots for all RNA sequences in this data set is provided in Additional file 4.) We also note that since calculating hotspots and running Iterative HFold are done sequentially, the memory consumption is calculated as the maximum of the two, so the memory consumption of Iterative HFold for this sequence is still the same even including the memory needed for calculating hotspots. As we can see based on this example, even including time and memory requirements of calculating hotspots, Iterative HFold is still faster than HotKnots and uses less memory.
We also compared Iterative HFold with IPknot [42]. While IPknot is faster than Iterative HFold and uses less memory, we found that for the HKPK and IPpk168 data sets, Iterative HFold provides significantly more accurate predictions of pseudoknotted structures, compared with IPknot. Based on our results on the HKPK data set, Iterative HFold’s performance with more than 5% information about the true pseudoknotfree structure, is better than that of IPknot with default settings (data shown in Additional file 3). We note that Sato et al. [42] find the performance of IPknot with predictions using “NUPACK” superior to all versions of IPknot, but since this model can be used for RNA sequences of length <80 nucleotides, we did not compare our results with this version of IPknot. Among all different versions of IPknot we tested, we found all but γ_{1}=1 and γ_{2}=1 setting producing similar confidence intervals for all but the HKPKfree data sets, for which γ_{1}=4 and γ_{2}=8 produces the best result (data shown in Additional file 2). While running parameter refinement with one iteration improved the confidence intervals in the HKPK data set, it did not result in any improvement in accuracy in the rest of our data sets as in many cases IPknot failed to produce results. We note that our results on the IPpk168 data set with different weight parameters perfectly match the results of Sato et al. [42].
A disadvantage of IPknot over Iterative HFold is that being an MEAbased method, IPknot does not produce free energy of the predicted structure. Also to get the best prediction, the user needs to provide some guidance as to what type of structure to predict for the given sequence, e.g., whether pseudoknotfree or pseudoknotted.
Comparison with ShapeKnots
Comparison of Iterative HFold Fmeasure with ShapeKnots on SHAPE data
Training set  Len  PK  Iter. HFold  ShapeKnots  

sen  ppv  F  sen  ppv  F  
PreQ1 riboswitch, B. subtilis  34  1  62.5  100  76.9  100  100  100 
Telomerase pseudoknot, human  47  1  100  100  100  100  100  100 
tRNA(asp), yeast  75  0  81.0  100  89.5  95.2  95.2  95.2 
TPP riboswitch, E. coli  79  0  46.5  47.6  47.1  95.4  87.5  91.3 
SARS corona virus pseudoknot  82  1  69.2  86.3  69.2  84.6  88.0  86.3 
cyclicdiGMP riboswitch, V. cholerae  97  0  85.5  81.0  83.2  89.3  86.2  87.7 
SAM I riboswitch, T. tengcongenis  118  1  79.5  91.2  84.9  92.3  97.3  94.7 
MBox riboswitch, B. subtilis  154  0  87.5  91.3  89.4  87.5  91.3  89.3 
P546 domain, bI3 group I intron  155  0  55.4  57.4  56.4  94.6  96.4  95.5 
Lysine riboswitch, T. maritima  174  1  85.7  94.7  90.0  87.3  88.7  88.0 
Group I intron, Azoarcus sp.  214  1  52.4  54.1  53.2  92.1  95.1  93.5 
Signal recognition particle RNA, human  301  0  70.0  73.7  71.8  55.0  53.9  54.4 
Hepatitis C virus IRES domain  336  1  71.2  74.0  72.5  92.3  96.0  94.1 
RNase P, B. subtilis  405  1  55.7  59.3  57.4  75.6  79.8  77.7 
Group II intron, O. iheyensis  412  1  87.9  95.9  91.7  93.2  97.6  95.3 
Group I intron, T. thermophila  425  1  83.2  85.2  84.2  93.9  91.2  92.5 
5’ domain of 23S rRNA, E. coli  511  0  84.0  72.5  77.8  92.4  76.4  83.6 
5’ domain of 16S rRNA, E. coli  530  0  73.6  69.0  71.2  89.9  80.6  84.9 
Test set  Len  PK  Iter. HFold  ShapeKnots  
sen  ppv  F  sen  ppv  F  
Fluoride riboswitch, P. syringae  66  1  100  100  100  93.7  93.7  93.7 
Adenine riboswitch, V. vulnificus  71  0  100  100  100  100  100  100 
tRNA(phe), E. coli  76  0  100  100  100  100  84.0  91.3 
5S rRNA, E. coli  120  0  91.4  91.4  91.4  85.7  76.9  81.1 
5’ domain of 16S rRNA, H. volcanii  473  0  90.3  82.3  86.1  89.6  82.7  86.0 
HIV1 5’ pseudoknot domain  500  1  45.4  50.4  47.7  100  100  100 
Iterative HFold with SimFold’s suboptimal structures
To further investigate which input structures are good to use when G_{ b i g } is not known, we use the first 50 suboptimal structures produced by SimFold (including the MFE structure). Then for each RNA sequence we run our methods on all 50 suboptimal structures and choose the one with the lowest free energy as the final result for that RNA sequence. With this approach, the bootstrap 95% percentile confidence interval of average Fmeasure of HFold and Iterative HFold is (61.80%, 80.63%) and (67.70%, 79.57%) respectively for pseudoknotted structures and (77.17%, 82.35%) and (76.27%, 81.46%) respectively for pseudoknotfree structures. The permutation test indicates that the difference between these results and the corresponding results when input structures are hotspots is not significant. We also test the significance of results of HFold with first 50 suboptimal structures versus Iterative HFold with the same input structures and Iterative HFold with hotspots for both pseudoknotted and pseudoknotfree structures. Although the bootstrap 95% percentile confidence intervals for average Fmeasures seem different, the permutation test indicates that the difference is not significant. Similarly, results of Iterative HFold with the first 50 suboptimal structures are not significantly better or worse than the result of HFold with hotspots as input structures for both pseudoknotted and pseudoknotfree structures.
Energy model
Comparison of bootstrap 95% percentile confidence interval of average Fmeasure between the minimum energy structures and the maximum accuracy structures of the HKPK and the HKPKfree data sets
Input structures  Min energy  Max accuracy  Permutation test 

Iter. HFold  hotspots PKed  (72.83, 83.37)  (78.56, 87.05)  Not significant 
Iter. HFold  hotspots PKfree  (74.93, 80.26)  (87.70, 90.57)  Significant 
Iter. HFold  50 suboptimals PKed  (67.70, 79.57)  (80.41, 88.14)  Significant 
Iter. HFold  50 suboptimals PKfree  (76.27, 81.46)  (90.05, 93.00)  Significant 
HotKnots PKed  (73.60, 83.35)  (84.50, 91.48)  Significant 
HotKnots PKfree  (76.74, 81.95)  (88.32, 91.08)  Significant 
Similarly, if we compare the maximum accuracy structure output by Iterative HFold with the minimum free energy structure, whether given HotKnots hotspots or the first 50 suboptimal structures to Iterative HFold as input, the bootstrap 95% percentile confidence intervals of average Fmeasure also show improvement  see Table 6. The difference in improvements is significant in all but one case, namely Iterative HFold on hotspots structures as input for pseudoknotted structures of the HKPK data set. We conclude that improvements on the energy parameter values for pseudoknotted structures may further improve accuracy of both HotKnots and Iterative HFold.
Conclusions
In this work we present Iterative HFold, a fast and robust iterative algorithm that matches the accuracy of the best existing pseudoknot prediction methods. Iterative HFold is significantly more accurate than IPknot while matching the accuracy of HotKnots on the HKPK data set. Iterative HFold is superior to both IPknot and HotKnots on the IPpk168 data set. Moreover both Iterative HFold and IPknot use less memory and run much faster than HotKnots on long sequences.
Iterative HFold also has lower rate of accuracy deterioration than HFold with loss of information about the true pseudoknotfree structure, so it is more robust than HFold. This is particularly helpful when the given input structure may be unreliable and/or limited information about the true pseudoknotfree structure is available. Iterative HFold is also more accurate than ShapeKnots [47] on the test set of Hajdin et al. [47].
In this work, we compared two different ways to generate pseudoknotfree input structures for input to Iterative HFold, namely the first 50 suboptimal structures produced by SimFold, and HotKnots hotspots. On the HKPK and HKPKfree data sets, accuracy of Iterative HFold is not significantly different on each of these. An alternative approach that may be worth exploring in future work would be to use the most highly probable base pairs, as calculated using the partition function [43]. Even better may be to calculate base pair probabilities for base pairs of pseudoknotted RNA structures; however this requires Θ(n^{5}) time. Since HFold finds minimum free energy structure in O(n^{3}) time, conditional on the given input structure, we are currently investigating ways to develop an O(n^{3})time partition function version of HFold that can produce pseudoknotted base pair probabilities that are conditional on the given input structure.
Comparing accuracy of the minimum free energy structures with the maximum accuracy structures in this work, we found that, on average, the minimum free energy structure has significantly poorer Fmeasure than the maximum accuracy structure. This suggests that an improved energy model for pseudoknotted structure prediction may improve accuracy of prediction algorithms for pseudoknotted structures.
Another direction for future work can be to use Iterative HFold for structure prediction of two interacting RNA molecules. Iterative HFold may be well suited for this purpose because, given input structures for each individual input molecule, it allows for modification of these input structures as it explores potential base pairing interactions between the two molecules.
Data and software availability
Iterative HFold and all data used in this work are freely available at http://www.cs.ubc.ca/~hjabbari/software.php.
Declarations
Acknowledgements
The authors thank the reviewers for their very constructive suggestions. The authors also thank and acknowledge Dr. Holger Hoos for his helpful comments and early discussion about the paper. This research was funded by a grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).
Authors’ Affiliations
References
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