RNA graph partitioning for the discovery of RNA modularity: A novel application of graph partition algorithm to biology

Namhee Kim, Zhe Zheng, Shereef Elmetwaly, Tamar Schlick

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Graph representations have been widely used to analyze and design various economic, social, military, political, and biological networks. In systems biology, networks of cells and organs are useful for understanding disease and medical treatments and, in structural biology, structures of molecules can be described, including RNA structures. In our RNA-As-Graphs (RAG) framework, we represent RNA structures as tree graphs by translating unpaired regions into vertices and helices into edges. Here we explore the modularity of RNA structures by applying graph partitioning known in graph theory to divide an RNA graph into subgraphs. To our knowledge, this is the first application of graph partitioning to biology, and the results suggest a systematic approach for modular design in general. The graph partitioning algorithms utilize mathematical properties of the Laplacian eigenvector (μ2) corresponding to the second eigenvalues (λ2) associated with the topology matrix defining the graph: λ2 describes the overall topology, and the sum of μ2's components is zero. The three types of algorithms, termed median, sign, and gap cuts, divide a graph by determining nodes of cut by median, zero, and largest gap of μ2's components, respectively. We apply these algorithms to 45 graphs corresponding to all solved RNA structures up through 11 vertices (∼220 nucleotides). While we observe that the median cut divides a graph into two similar-sized subgraphs, the sign and gap cuts partition a graph into two topologically-distinct subgraphs. We find that the gap cut produces the best biologically-relevant partitioning for RNA because it divides RNAs at less stable connections while maintaining junctions intact. The iterative gap cuts suggest basic modules and assembly protocols to design large RNA structures. Our graph substructuring thus suggests a systematic approach to explore the modularity of biological networks. In our applications to RNA structures, subgraphs also suggest design strategies for novel RNA motifs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere106074
JournalPloS one
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 4 2014

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences
  • General


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