The identification of small structural motifs and their organization into larger subassemblies is of fundamental interest in the analysis, prediction and design of 3D structures of large RNAs. This problem has been studied only sparsely, as most of the existing work is limited to the characterization and discovery of motifs in RNA secondary structures. We present a novel geometric method for the characterization and identification of structural motifs in 3D rRNA molecules. This method enables the efficient recognition of known 3D motifs, such as tetraloops, E-loops, kink-turns and others. Furthermore, it provides a new way of characterizing complex 3D motifs, notably junctions, that have been defined and identified in the secondary structure but have not been analyzed and classified in three dimensions. We demonstrate the relevance and utility of our approach by applying it to the Haloarcula marismortui large ribosomal unit. Pending the implementation of a dedicated web server, the code accompanying this article, written in JAVA, is available upon request from the contact author.
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