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Geometric nomenclature and classification of RNA base pairs

  • Published online: 09 April 2001

Non-Watson–Crick base pairs mediate specific interactions responsible for RNA–RNA self-assembly and RNA–protein recognition. An unambiguous and descriptive nomenclature with well-defined and nonoverlapping parameters is needed to communicate concisely structural information about RNA base pairs. The definitions should reflect underlying molecular structures and interactions and, thus, facilitate automated annotation, classification, and comparison of new RNA structures. We propose a classification based on the observation that the planar edge-to-edge, hydrogen-bonding interactions between RNA bases involve one of three distinct edges: the Watson–Crick edge, the Hoogsteen edge, and the Sugar edge (which includes the 2′-OH and which has also been referred to as the Shallow-groove edge). Bases can interact in either of two orientations with respect to the glycosidic bonds, cis or trans relative to the hydrogen bonds. This gives rise to 12 basic geometric types with at least two H bonds connecting the bases. For each geometric type, the relative orientations of the strands can be easily deduced. High-resolution examples of 11 of the 12 geometries are presently available. Bifurcated pairs, in which a single exocyclic carbonyl or amino group of one base directly contacts the edge of a second base, and water-inserted pairs, in which single functional groups on each base interact directly, are intermediate between two of the standard geometries. The nomenclature facilitates the recognition of isosteric relationships among base pairs within each geometry, and thus facilitates the recognition of recurrent three-dimensional motifs from comparison of homologous sequences. Graphical conventions are proposed for displaying non-Watson–Crick interactions on a secondary structure diagram. The utility of the classification in homology modeling of RNA tertiary motifs is illustrated.

Corresponding author
Reprint requests to: Neocles B. Leontis, Chemistry Department and Center for Biomolecular Sciences, Overman Hall, Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio 43403, USA; e-mail:
or reprint requests to: Eric Westhof, Institut de Biologie Moléculaire et Cellulaire du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Modélisation et Simulations des Acides Nucléiques, Unité Propre de Recherche 9002, F-67084 Strasbourg Cedex, France; e-mail:
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  • ISSN: 1355-8382
  • EISSN: 1469-9001
  • URL: /core/journals/rna
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