A minimum cycle basis of the tertiary structure of a large ribosomal subunit (LSU) X-ray crystal structure was analyzed. Most cycles are small, as they are composed of 3- to 5 nt, and repeated across the LSU tertiary structure. We used hierarchical clustering to quantify and classify the 4 nt cycles. One class is defined by the GNRA tetraloop motif. The inspection of the GNRA class revealed peculiar instances in sequence. First is the presence of UA, CA, UC and CC base pairs that substitute the usual sheared GA base pair. Second is the revelation of GNR(X(n))A tetraloops, where X(n) is bulged out of the classical GNRA structure, and of GN/RA formed by the two strands of interior-loops. We were able to unambiguously characterize the cycle classes using base stacking and base pairing annotations. The cycles identified correspond to small and cyclic motifs that compose most of the LSU RNA tertiary structure and contribute to its thermodynamic stability. Consequently, the RNA minimum cycles could well be used as the basic elements of RNA tertiary structure prediction methods.
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