Inferring RNA sequence preferences for poorly studied RNA-binding proteins based on co-evolution

Shu Yang, Junwen Wang, Raymond T. Ng

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Background: Characterizing the binding preference of RNA-binding proteins (RBP) is essential for us to understand the interaction between an RBP and its RNA targets, and to decipher the mechanism of post-transcriptional regulation. Experimental methods have been used to generate protein-RNA binding data for a number of RBPs in vivo and in vitro. Utilizing the binding data, a couple of computational methods have been developed to detect the RNA sequence or structure preferences of the RBPs. However, the majority of RBPs have not yet been experimentally characterized and lack RNA binding data. For these poorly studied RBPs, the identification of their binding preferences cannot be performed by most existing computational methods because the experimental binding data are prerequisite to these methods. Results: Here we propose a new method based on co-evolution to predict the sequence preferences for the poorly studied RBPs, waiving the requirement of their binding data. First, we demonstrate the co-evolutionary relationship between RBPs and their RNA partners. We then present a K-nearest neighbors (KNN) based algorithm to infer the sequence preference of an RBP using only the preference information from its homologous RBPs. By benchmarking against several in vitro and in vivo datasets, our proposed method outperforms the existing alternative which uses the closest neighbor's preference on all the datasets. Moreover, it shows comparable performance with two state-of-the-art methods that require the presence of the experimental binding data. Finally, we demonstrate the usage of this method to infer sequence preferences for novel proteins which have no binding preference information available. Conclusion: For a poorly studied RBP, the current methods used to determine its binding preference need experimental data, which is expensive and time consuming. Therefore, determining RBP's preference is not practical in many situations. This study provides an economic solution to infer the sequence preference of such protein based on the co-evolution. The source codes and related datasets are available at

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number96
JournalBMC bioinformatics
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 12 2018


  • Co-evolution
  • K-nearest neighbors
  • Machine learning
  • RBP binding preference

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Structural Biology
  • Biochemistry
  • Molecular Biology
  • Computer Science Applications
  • Applied Mathematics


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