There is a growing body of low-resolution structural data that can be utilized to devise structural models for large RNAs and ribonucleoproteins. These models are routinely built manually. We introduce an automated refinement protocol to utilize such data for building low-resolution three-dimensional models using the tools of molecular mechanics. In addition to specifying the positions of each nucleotide, the protocol provides quantitative estimates of the uncertainties in those positions, i.e., the resolution of the model. In typical applications, the resolution of the models is about 10–20 A. Our method uses reduced representations and allows us to refine three-dimensional structures of systems as big as the 16S and 23S ribosomal RNAs, which are about one to two orders of magnitude larger than nucleic acids that can be examined by traditional all-atom modeling methods. Nonatomic resolution structural data--secondary structure, chemical cross-links, chemical and enzymatic footprinting patterns, protein positions, solvent accessibility, and so on--are combined with known motifs in RNA structure to predict low-resolution models of large RNAs. These structural constraints are imposed on the RNA chain using molecular mechanics-type potential functions with parameters based on the quality of experimental data. Surface potential functions are used to incorporate shape and positional data from electron microscopy image reconstruction experiments into our models. The structures are optimized using techniques of energy refinement to get RNA folding patterns. In addition to providing a consensus model, the method finds the range of models consistent with the data, which allows quantitative evaluation of the resolution of the model. The method also identifies conflicts in the experimental data. Although our protocol is aimed at much larger RNAs, we illustrate these techniques using the tRNA structure as an example and test-bed. © 1994, The Biophysical Society. All rights reserved.
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