CoFold: an RNA secondary structure prediction method that takes co-transcriptional folding into account
Message RNA (mRNA) carries a large number of local secondary structures, with structural stability to participate in the regulations of gene expression. A worthy question is how the local structural stability is maintained under the constraint that multiple selective pressures are imposed on mRNA local regions. Here, we performed the first genome-wide study of natural selection operating on high structural stability regions (HSRs) of mRNAs in Escherichia coli. We found that HSR tends to adjust the folded conformation to reduce the harm of mutations, showing a high level of mutational robustness. Moreover, guanine preference in HSR was observed, supporting the hypothesis that the selective constraint for high structural stability may partly account for the high percentage of G content in Escherichia coli genome. Notably, we found a substantially reduced synonymous substitution rate in HSRs compared with that in their adjacent regions. Surprisingly and interestingly, the non-key sites in HSRs, which have slight effect on structural stability, have synonymous substitution rate equivalent to background regions. To explain this result, we identified compensatory mutations in HSRs based on structural stability, and found that a considerable number of synonymous mutations occur to restore the structural stability decreased heavily by the mutations on key sites. Overall, these results suggest a significant role of local structural stability as a selective force operating on mRNA, which furthers our understanding of the constraints imposed on protein-coding RNAs.