Designing RNA secondary structures is hard

Bonnet, Edouard, Rzążewski, Paweł and Sikora, Florian (2018) Designing RNA secondary structures is hard. Research in Computational Molecular Biology: 22nd Annual International Conference, RECOMB 2018, Paris, France, April 21-24, 2018, Proceedings. In: 22nd Annual International Conference on Research in Computational Molecular Biology (RECOMB 2018), 21-24 Apr 2018, Paris, France. ISBN 9783319899282. ISSN 0302-9743 [Conference or Workshop Item]

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An RNA sequence is a word over an alphabet on four elements {A, C, G, U} called bases. RNA sequences fold into secondary structures where some bases match one another while others remain unpaired. Pseudoknot-free secondary structures can be represented as well-parenthesized expressions with additional dots, where pairs of matching parentheses symbolize paired bases and dots, unpaired bases. The two fundamental problems in RNA algorithmic are to predict how sequences fold within some model of energy and to design sequences of bases which will fold into targeted secondary structures. Predicting how a given RNA sequence folds into a pseudoknot-free secondary structure is known to be solvable in cubic time since the eighties and in truly subcubic time by a recent result of Bringmann et al. (FOCS 2016), whereas Lyngsø has shown it is NP-complete if pseudoknots are allowed (ICALP 2004). As a stark contrast, it is unknown whether or not designing a given RNA secondary structure is a tractable task; this has been raised as a challenging open question by Anne Condon (ICALP 2003). Because of its crucial importance in a number of fields such as pharmaceutical research and biochemistry, there are dozens of heuristics and software libraries dedicated to RNA secondary structure design. It is therefore rather surprising that the computational complexity of this central problem in bioinformatics has been unsettled for decades.
In this paper we show that, in the simplest model of energy which is the Watson-Crick model the design of secondary structures is NP-complete if one adds natural constraints of the form: index i of the sequence has to be labeled by base b. This negative result suggests that the same lower bound holds for more realistic models of energy. It is noteworthy that the additional constraints are by no means artificial: they are provided by all the RNA design pieces of software and they do correspond to the actual practice (see for example the instances of the EteRNA project). Our reduction from a variant of 3-Sat has as main ingredients: arches of parentheses of different widths, a linear order interleaving variables and clauses, and an intended rematching strategy which increases the number of pairs iff the three literals of a same clause are not satisfied. The correctness of the construction is also quite intricate; it relies on the polynomial algorithm for the design of saturated structures – secondary structures without dots – by Haleš et al. (Algorithmica 2016), counting arguments, and a concise case analysis.

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)
Additional Information: published as Édouard Bonnet, Paweł Rzążewski, and Florian Sikora, Designing RNA Secondary Structures Is Hard. In: Raphael B. (eds) Research in Computational Molecular Biology. RECOMB 2018. pp. 248-250. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, vol 10812. Springer, Cham
Research Areas: A. > School of Science and Technology > Computer Science
Item ID: 24161
Notes on copyright: The final authenticated version is available online at
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Depositing User: Bade Ajibade
Date Deposited: 23 Apr 2018 14:38
Last Modified: 29 Nov 2022 20:00

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