3DNA is a versatile, integrated software system for the analysis, rebuilding and visualization of three-dimensional nucleic-acid-containing structures. The software is applicable not only to DNA (as the name 3DNA may imply), but also to complicated RNA structures and DNA-protein complexes. In 3DNA, structural analysis and model rebuilding are two sides of the same coin: the description of structure is rigorous and reversible, thus allowing for its exact reconstruction based on the derived parameters. 3DNA automatically detects all non-cannonical base pairs, base triplets and higher-order associations, and coaxially stacked helices; provides a comprehensive collection of fiber models of regular DNA and RNA helices; generates highly effective schematic presentations that reveal key features of nucleic-acid structures; performs undisturbed base mutations, and have facilities for the analysis of molecular dynamics simulation trajectories. The recently added DSSR program has been designed from the ground up to make RNA structure analyses straightforward, and it has a decent user manual!

3DNA is under active development. In particular, any 3DNA-related questions are welcome and should be directed to the 3DNA forum — I strive to provide a prompt and concrete response to each and every question posted there.

More info · Seeing is believing · What’s new · 3DNA forum · Download


DSSR-Jmol paper in NAR

I am pleased to announce the (advance online, May 3, 2017) publication of a new paper titled "DSSR-enhanced visualization of nucleic acid structures in Jmol" in Nucleic Acids Research (NAR). Co-authored by Robert Hanson (Jmol) and me (DSSR), the article will appear in the July 2017 web-server issue of NAR. Here are the key links related to the paper:

The DSSR-Jmol integration project was initiated in October 2013 when I approached Bob at a meeting organized by RCSB PDB at Rutgers. Thereafter, we met only once in July 2014 in Paris. Over the years, we have mostly communicated via email, occasionally facilitated by Skype. Our work bridges the DSSR command-line analyzing tool and the Jmol molecular viewer together via a simple JSON interface and a powerful query language. Users can now select DSSR-derived RNA structural features (such as base pairs, double helices, and various loops) as easily as they can select protein alpha-helices and beta-strands. Moreover, fine-grained characteristics of these features can be queried via Jmol SQL for DSSR (see examples below). Notably, the novel representation styles (step diagram and base blocks) and coloring schemes bring RNA visualization to an entirely new level (see Figure 3 of the paper).

load =1ehz/dssr   # load yeast phenylalanine tRNA to Jmol with DSSR annotation
SELECT hairpins   # select the three hairpin loops
SELECT junctions  # select the four-way junction loop
select within(dssr, "nts WHERE is_modified")  # select modified nucleotides (14 total)
SELECT within(dssr, "pairs WHERE name != 'WC'")  # select non-Watson-Crick pairs
SELECT within(dssr, "pairs WHERE name = 'WC' OR name = 'Wobble'")  # select canonical pairs
Select within(dssr, "pairs WHERE name != 'WC' AND name != 'Wobble'")  # select non-canonical pairs
SELECT within(dssr, "pairs WHERE LW = 'tSW'")  # select pairs of type tSW per Leontis-Westhof

The DSSR-Jmol integration fills a gap in RNA structural bioinformatics, serving a huge user base of researchers, educators, and students alike. Its functionality is freely accessible either via the Jmol application, or the JSmol-based website (http://jmol.x3dna.org). By adhering to web standards, the website is fully functional in all modern browsers on various computer/operating systems (including handheld devices, such as tablets and smart phones). The web interface is simple and intuitive, and new users can get started easily. It also allows power users to take full advantage of Jmol scripting via a command-line console.

This work also provides an example for integrating DSSR-derived features into other molecular graphics programs or bioinformatics pipelines involving nucleic acid structures. By design, DSSR is a stand-alone, command-line program written in ANSI C. The binary executables are only ~1MB in size, and self-contained. With zero dependencies, no setup or configuration, it is trivial to get DSSR up and running. DSSR uncovers a wide range of RNA/DNA structural features in a consistent, easily accessible framework. It possesses a much richer set of functionalities for nucleic acid structural analysis (see the DSSR User Manual) than any other existing tools I am aware of. Moreover, the program is efficient and robust, making it an ideal component to be integrated into other pipelines, especially via the standard and structured JSON interface.

Collaborating with Bob has been a truly exciting experience. The NAR-web publication represents a gratifying intermediate result along an on-going journey. Hopefully, others (may be some of you) can join us in pushing forward the field of RNA structural bioinformatics.



Weird PDB entries

Recently, while analyzing a representative set of RNA structures from the PDB, I came across three weird entries. They are documented below, primarily for my own record.

  • 5els — “Structure of the KH domain of T-STAR in complex with AAAUAA RNA”. There are two alternative conformations for the six-nt AAAUAA RNA component, labeled A and B, respectively. Normally, the A/B alternative coordinates for each atom are put directly next to each other, and assigned the same chain id, as in 1msy for the phosphate group of G2669 on chain A. In 5els, however, the two alternative conformations (A/B) are separated into two chains: chain H for A, and chain I for B.
  • 1vql — “The structure of the transition state analogue ‘DCSN’ bound to the large ribosomal subunit of Haloarcula marismortui”. The three-nt fragment DA179—C180—C181 on chain 4 is in the 3’—>5’ direction.
  • 4r3i — “The crystal structure of m(6)A RNA with the YTHDC1 YTH domain”. The mmCIF file has a model number of 0, instead of 1 (as in other cases I am aware of).



Highlights of recent developments of 3DNA/DSSR

Dear 3DNA Forum subscribers,

Here are some highlights of recent developments of 3DNA/DSSR:

Note: If you’ve difficulty in accessing the 3DNA homepage, possibly the case from mainland China (as I know it), please visit its duplicate at http://home.x3dna.org. This newsletter is written in Markdown, with a translated HTML version posted on the 3DNA homepage.

3DNA v2.3

  • The C source code is now available. Since the programs are written in strict ANSI C, 3DNA can be compiled (as is) on any computers/operating systems with a C (or C++) compiler. For user convenience, three binary distributions (with source code under the src/ subdirectory) are provided for Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X. The distributed Windows version works in native Windows (7 and up, via the cmd command-line interface, or ConEMU), MinGW/Msys (Msys2), and Cygwin, in either 32 or 64-bit.

  • A new set of ‘simple’ base-pair and step parameters was introduced to give ‘intuitive’ numerical values for non-Watson-Crick base pairs and associated steps. See the short communication titled Characterization of base pair geometry in the January 2016 issue of Computational Crystallography Newsletter (CCN).

  • The fiber program includes a new option, --pauling, for easy generation of Pauling & Corey triplex models of DNA/RNA with arbitrary base sequence. See my blogpost titled Pauling’s triplex model of nucleic acids is available in 3DNA.

  • Thomas Holder (PyMOL Principal Developer at Schrödinger, Inc.) has built a PyMOL wrapper to 3DNA fiber models. Now generating standard, regular DNA/RNA models in PyMOL is straightforward — thanks, Thomas!

DSSR (Dissecting the Spatial Structure of RNA)

  • Selected features of DSSR have been incorporated into Jmol (in collaboration with Robert Hanson, Jmol Principal Developer), and PyMOL (in collaboration with Thomas Holder). In Jmol application (via the Console window), one can now, for example, load =1ehz/dssr and then select hairpins; color red to see where the three hairpin loops are in 3D. The Jmol-DSSR web interface makes DSSR-enhanced visualization of nucleic acid structures in Jmol readily accessible to a broad user base, and has been employed in classes for educational purpose. A sample image of DSSR-derived cartoon-block representation via PyMOL is available for PDB entry 5dww, which has a G-quadruplex-duplex interface.

  • Since the publication of the Nucleic Acids Research paper in 2015, DSSR has been continuously refined and expanded, with a total of 36 new releases (from v1.2.8 to v1.6.4) as of this writing. Notably, the --json option provides DSSR-derived parameters in the simple, structured, and standard JSON format that can be easily parsed. This JSON output format is the (preferred) way for the outside world to interface with DSSR, and the Jmol-DSSR integration is built upon it. The --nmr option allows for batch processing of MODEL/ENDMDL-delineated NMR ensembles or trajectories of molecular dynamics (MD) simulations. Did you know that scripts and data files for reproducing the reported results are available in the DSSR-NAR paper section on the 3DNA Forum?

  • The User Manual is now 88-page long, covering nevertheless only the most common use cases of what DSSR has to offer. Miss a feature that you would like to have? Maybe it is already there or can be easily implemented in DSSR. Simply ask (on the 3DNA Forum), and I’ll try my best to help.

SNAP (Structures of Nucleic Acid-Protein complexes)

  • SNAP aims to consolidate, refine, and significantly extend commonly used functionalities for DNA/RNA-protein structural analysis in one easy-to-use program. Currently in beta testing, SNAP is already fully functional, with features for characterizing the protein-nucleic acid interface and identifying amino acid-base pairing and stacking interactions.

A note for 3DNA/DSSR users in mainland China: It’s a pleasure to see the ~100 registrations on the 3DNA Forum with emails ending in .cn, 163.com, or qq.com etc., mostly from recent years. I’m planning a trip to China in 2017, and I’d be happy to meet some of you for academic exchanges and possible collaborations (学术交流、合作). If you’re interested, let’s get in touch!

Best regards,


Dr. Xiang-Jun Lu (律祥俊)
Email: xiangjun@x3dna.org
Web: http://x3dna.org/
Forum: http://forum.x3dna.org/

Comment [2]


Pauling's triplex model of nucleic acids is available in 3DNA

In 1953, Pauling and Corey published an influential paper, titled A proposed structure for the nucleic acids, in Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. (PNAS). Key features of the proposed model is summarized in their Letter to Nature, Structure of the Nucleic Acids, published in Nature on February 21, 1953.

We have formulated a structure for the nucleic acids which is compatible with the main features of the X-ray diagram and with the general principles of molecular structure, and which accounts satisfactorily for some of the chemical properties of the substances. The structure involves three intertwined helical polynucleotide chains. Each chain, which is formed by phosphate di-ester groups and linking β-D-ribofuranose or β-D-deoxyribofuranose residues with 3′, 5′ linkages, has approximately twenty-four nucleotide residues in seven turns of the helix. The helixes have the sense of a right-handed screw. The phosphate groups are closely packed about the axis of the molecule, with the pentose residues surrounding them, and the purine and pyrimidine groups projecting radially, their planes being approximately perpendicular to the molecular axis. The operation that converts one residue to the next residue in the polynucleotide chain is rotation by about 105° and translation by 3.4 Å.

This triplex model of nucleic acids, with phosphates in the center and bases on the outside, turned out to be fundamentally flawed. Yet, it played a significant role by prompting Watson and Crick in their discovery of the DNA double helix structure. While I’ve been aware of the Pauling triplex model from long ago, I had not read the original Pauling & Corey PNAS paper. Not surprisingly, I did not know what the triplex structure really looks like, other than some general ideas.

In a recent trip to Rutgers, Dr. Wilma Olson and I discussed the applications of fiber models collected in 3DNA. She drew my attention to the Pauling triplex model, and showed me Table 1 of the PNAS paper (see below), where the atomic coordinates for a nucleic acid repeating unit are listed.

Atomic coordinates of the Pauling triplex

The cylindrical format is the same as that for the fiber models in 3DNA. It thus seems fitting to add this historically significant triplex model to the collection. Googling revealed many interesting historical notes and comments, e.g. The Pauling-Corey Structure of DNA, and a short video Linus Pauling’s triple DNA helix model, 3D animation with basic narration. However, I failed to find a program that I can use to generate such a triplex model with generic base sequence. I decided to add the fiber --pauling option so users can easily create such a triplex model in 3D, just as they do for a classic A- and B-DNA duplex. This process has turned out to be very educational (detailed below), and the end result should be of general interest.

3D image of the repeating unit (cytosine) in Pauling triplex

  • The left 3D image shows the nomenclature of atoms used by Pauling & Corey (see Table 1 above), which is dramatically different from current conventions. As an example, it should be the N1 atom of cytosine (a pyrimidine base), not N3, that is connected to the sugar C1′ atom in nowadays nomenclature. The corrections apply not only to base atoms, but also to the sugar and phosphate groups. The revised atom labeling (as used in the PDB) is illustrated in the 3D image on the right.
  • Table 1 corresponds to the ribose sugar since it contains an O2′ atom (see also the figure above). The triplex model constructed would be RNA, but can be ‘converted’ to DNA by simply removing the O2′ atom (see below).
  • Only the atomic coordinates for cytosine are listed in Table 1. The 3DNA mutate_bases program came handy to get the corresponding atomic coordinates for A, G, T, and U. This expansion allows for the generation of Pauling’s triplex models with an arbitrary combination of the five common bases (A, C, G, T, and U).
  • With the new fiber --pauling option, now users can conveniently generate a Pauling’s triplex RNA/DNA model as shown below. Note that the one dash variant -pauling also works fine, with the additional -dna for DNA deoxyribose sugar. The PDB file (Pauling-triplex-mixed.pdb) with mixed DNA sequences can be downloaded, and the corresponding 3D image in top and side views is shown in the following figure.
        fiber -pauling triplex-C10C10C10.pdb        # default: 10 Cs per strand
        fiber -pauling -seq=AAA triplex-A3A3A3.pdb  # 3 As per strand
        fiber -pauling -seq=AAAA:CCCC:GGGG Pauling-triplex-A4C4G4.pdb
        fiber -pauling -seq=ACGGUU,UUGGAC,GGAACC  Pauling-triplex-mixed.pdb
        fiber --pauling-dna -seq=ACGGTT,TTGGAC,GGAACC  Pauling-triplex-DNA.pdb

Sample Pauling DNA triplex generated with 3DNA

  • With 3DNA’s find_pair/analyze pair of programs, one can get the structural parameters corresponding to the Pauling triplex model. Not surprising, the repeating dinucleotide along each strand has a twist of 105°, and a rise of 3.4 Å. Notably, the sugar has a C2′-endo conformation.



3DNA fiber models

3DNA contains 55 fiber models compiled from literature, plus a derived RNA model (as of v2.1). To the best of my knowledge, this is the most comprehensive collection of regular DNA/RNA models. Please see Table 4 of the 2003 3DNA NAR paper for detailed structural features of these models and references.

The 55 models are based on the following works:

  • Chandrasekaran & Arnott (from #1 to #43) — the most well-known set of fiber models
  • Alexeev et al. (#44-#45)
  • van Dam & Levitt (#46-#47)
  • Premilat & Albiser (#48-#55)

The utility program fiber makes the generation of all these fiber models in a simple, consistent interface, and produces coordinate files in either PDB or PDBML format. Of those models, some can be built with an arbitrary sequence of A, C, G and T (e.g., A-/B-/C-DNA from calf thymus), while others are of fixed sequences (e.g., Z-DNA with GC repeats). The sequence can be specified either from command-line or a plain text file, in either lower, UPPER, or MixED cases.

Once 3DNA in properly installed, the command-line interface is the most versatile and convenient way to generate, e.g., a regular double-stranded DNA (mostly, B-DNA) of arbitrary sequence. The command-help message (generated with fiber -h) is as below:

        fiber - generate 55 fiber models based on Arnott and other's work
        fiber [OPTION] PDBFILE
        generate 55 fiber models based on the repeating unit from Arnott's
        work, including the canonical A-, B-, C- and Z-DNA, triplex, etc
        -xml     output structure coordinates in PDBML format
        -num     a structure identification number in the range (1-55)
        -m, -l   brief description of the 55 fiber structures
        -a, -1   A-DNA model (calf thymus)
        -b, -4   B-DNA (calf thymus, default)
        -c, -47  C-DNA (BII-type nucleotides)
        -d, -48  D(A)-DNA  ploy d(AT) : ploy d(AT) (right-handed)
        -z, -15  Z-DNA poly d(GC) : poly d(GC)
        -rna     for RNA with arbitrary base sequence
        -seq=string specifying an arbitrary base sequence
        -single  output a single-stranded structure
        -h       this help message (any non-recognized options will do)
        An structural identification number (symbol)
        fiber fiber-BDNA.pdb
            # fiber -4 fiber-BDNA.pdb
            # fiber -b fiber-BDNA.pdb
        fiber -a fiber-ADNA.pdb
        fiber -seq=AAAGGUUU -rna fiber-RNA.pdb
        fiber -seq=AAAGGUUU -rna -single fiber-ssRNA.pdb
        PDB file
        analyze, anyhelix, find_pair
        3DNA v2.3-2016sept06, created and maintained by Xiang-Jun Lu (PhD)

Please post questions/comments on the 3DNA Forum: http://forum.x3dna.org/

Moreover, the w3DNA, 3D-DART web-interfaces, and the PyMOL wrapper make it easy to generate a regular DNA (or RNA) model, especially for occasional users or for educational purposes.

In principle, nothing is worth showing off with regard to 3DNA’s fiber model generation functionality. Nevertheless, this handy tool serves as a clear example of the differences between a “proof of concept” and a pragmatic software application. I initially decided to work on this tool simply for my own convenience. At that time, I had access to A-DNA and B-DNA fiber model generators, each as a separate program. Moreover, the constructed models did not comply to the PDB format in atom naming, among other subtitles.

I started with the Chandrasekaran & Arnott fiber models which I had a copy of data files. However, there were many details to work out, typos to correct, etc. to put them in a consistent framework. For other models, I had to read each original publication, and to type raw atomic cylindrical coordinates into computer. Again, quite a few inconsistencies popped up between the different publications with a time span over decades.

Overall, it was a quite tedious undertaking, requiring great attention to details. I am glad that I did that: I learned so much from the process, and more importantly, others can benefit from my effort. As I put in the 3DNA Nature Protocol paper (BOX 6 | FIBER-DIFFRACTION MODELS),

In preparing this set of fiber models, we have taken great care to ensure the accuracy and consistency of the models. For completeness and user verification, 3DNA includes, in addition to 3DNA-processed files, the original coordinates collected from the literature.

For those who want to understand what’s going on under the hood, there is no better way than to try to reproduce the process using, e.g., fiber B-DNA as an example.

From the very beginning, I had expected the 3DNA fiber functionality to serve as a handy tool for building a regular DNA duplex of chosen sequence. Over the years, the fiber program has gradually attracted attention from the community. The recent PyMOL wrapper by Thomas Holder is a clear sign of its increased popularity, and has prompted me to write this post, adapted largely from the one titled Fiber models in 3DNA make it easy to build regular DNA helices (dated Friday, October 9, 2009).

See also PyMOL wrapper to 3DNA fiber models


Given below is the content of the README file for fiber models in 3DNA:

1. The repeating units of each fiber structure are mostly based on the
   work of Chandrasekaran & Arnott (from #1 to #43). More recent fiber
   models are based on Alexeev et al. (#44-#45), van Dam & Levitt (#46
   -#47) and Premilat & Albiser (#48-#55).

2. Clean up of each residue
   a. currently ignore hydrogen atoms [can be easily added]
   b. change ME/C7 group of thymine to C5M
   c. re-assign O3' atom to be attached with C3'
   d. change distance unit from nm to A [most of the entries]
   e. re-ordering atoms according to the NDB convention

3. Fix up of problem structures.
   a. str#8 has no N9 atom for guanine
   b. str#10 is not available from the disk, manually input
   c. str#14 C5M atom was named C5 for Thymine, resulting two C5 atoms
   d. str#17 has wrong assignment of O3' atom on Guanine
   e. str#33 has wrong C6 position in U3
   f. str#37 to #str41 were typed in manually following Arnott's
        new list as given in "Oxford Handbook of Nucleic Acid Structure"
        edited by S. Neidle (Oxford Press, 1999)
   g. str#38 coordinates for N6(A) and N3(T) are WRONG as given in the
        original literature
   h. str#39 and #40 have the same O3' coordinates for the 2nd strand

4. str#44 & 45 have fixed strand II residues (T)

5. str#46 & 47 have +z-axis upwards (based on BI.pdb & BII.pdb)

6. str#48 to 55 have +z-axis upwards

List of 55 fiber structures

id#  Twist   Rise        Structure description
    (dgrees)  (A)
 1   32.7   2.548  A-DNA  (calf thymus; generic sequence: A, C, G and T)
 2   65.5   5.095  A-DNA  poly d(ABr5U) : poly d(ABr5U)
 3    0.0  28.030  A-DNA  (calf thymus) poly d(A1T2C3G4G5A6A7T8G9G10T11) :
                                        poly d(A1C2C3A4T5T6C7C8G9A10T11)
 4   36.0   3.375  B-DNA  (calf thymus; generic sequence: A, C, G and T)
 5   72.0   6.720  B-DNA  poly d(CG) : poly d(CG)
 6  180.0  16.864  B-DNA  (calf thymus) poly d(C1C2C3C4C5) : poly d(G6G7G8G9G10)
 7   38.6   3.310  C-DNA  (calf thymus; generic sequence: A, C, G and T)
 8   40.0   3.312  C-DNA  poly d(GGT) : poly d(ACC)
 9  120.0   9.937  C-DNA  poly d(G1G2T3) : poly d(A4C5C6)
10   80.0   6.467  C-DNA  poly d(AG) : poly d(CT)
11   80.0   6.467  C-DNA  poly d(A1G2) : poly d(C3T4)
12   45.0   3.013  D-DNA  poly d(AAT) : poly d(ATT)
13   90.0   6.125  D-DNA  poly d(CI) : poly d(CI)
14  -90.0  18.500  D-DNA  poly d(A1T2A3T4A5T6) : poly d(A1T2A3T4A5T6)
15  -60.0   7.250  Z-DNA  poly d(GC) : poly d(GC)
16  -51.4   7.571  Z-DNA  poly d(As4T) : poly d(As4T)
17    0.0  10.200  L-DNA  (calf thymus) poly d(GC) : poly d(GC)
18   36.0   3.230  B'-DNA alpha poly d(A) : poly d(T) (H-DNA)
19   36.0   3.233  B'-DNA beta2 poly d(A) : poly d(T) (H-DNA  beta)
20   32.7   2.812  A-RNA  poly (A) : poly (U)
21   30.0   3.000  A'-RNA poly (I) : poly (C)
22   32.7   2.560  Hybrid poly (A) : poly d(T)
23   32.0   2.780  Hybrid poly d(G) : poly (C)
24   36.0   3.130  Hybrid poly d(I) : poly (C)
25   32.7   3.060  Hybrid poly d(A) : poly (U)
26   36.0   3.010  10-fold poly (X) : poly (X)
27   32.7   2.518  11-fold poly (X) : poly (X)
28   32.7   2.596  Poly (s2U) : poly (s2U) (symmetric base-pair)
29   32.7   2.596  Poly (s2U) : poly (s2U) (asymmetric base-pair)
30   32.7   3.160  Poly d(C) : poly d(I) : poly d(C)
31   30.0   3.260  Poly d(T) : poly d(A) : poly d(T)
32   32.7   3.040  Poly (U) : poly (A) : poly(U) (11-fold)
33   30.0   3.040  Poly (U) : poly (A) : poly(U) (12-fold)
34   30.0   3.290  Poly (I) : poly (A) : poly(I)
35   31.3   3.410  Poly (I) : poly (I) : poly(I) : poly(I)
36   60.0   3.155  Poly (C) or poly (mC) or poly (eC)
37   36.0   3.200  B'-DNA beta2  Poly d(A) : poly d(U)
38   36.0   3.240  B'-DNA beta1  Poly d(A) : poly d(T)
39   72.0   6.480  B'-DNA beta2  Poly d(AI) : poly d(CT)
40   72.0   6.460  B'-DNA beta1  Poly d(AI) : poly d(CT)
41  144.0  13.540  B'-DNA  Poly d(AATT) : poly d(AATT)
42   32.7   3.040  Poly(U) : poly d(A) : poly(U) [cf. #32]
43   36.0   3.200  Beta Poly d(A) : Poly d(U) [cf. #37]
44   36.0   3.233  Poly d(A) : poly d(T) (Ca salt)
45   36.0   3.233  Poly d(A) : poly d(T) (Na salt)
46   36.0   3.38   B-DNA (BI-type nucleotides; generic sequence: A, C, G and T)
47   40.0   3.32   C-DNA (BII-type nucleotides; generic sequence: A, C, G and T)
48   87.8   6.02   D(A)-DNA  ploy d(AT) : ploy d(AT) (right-handed)
49   60.0   7.20   S-DNA  ploy d(CG) : poly d(CG) (C_BG_A, right-handed)
50   60.0   7.20   S-DNA  ploy d(GC) : poly d(GC) (C_AG_B, right-handed)
51   31.6   3.22   B*-DNA  poly d(A) : poly d(T)
52   90.0   6.06   D(B)-DNA  poly d(AT) : poly d(AT) [cf. #48]
53  -38.7   3.29   C-DNA (generic sequence: A, C, G and T) (depreciated)
54   32.73  2.56   A-DNA (generic sequence: A, C, G and T) [cf. #1]
55   36.0   3.39   B-DNA (generic sequence: A, C, G and T) [cf. #4]
List 1-41 based on Struther Arnott: ``Polynucleotide secondary structures:
     an historical perspective'', pp. 1-38 in ``Oxford Handbook of Nucleic
     Acid Structure'' edited by Stephen Neidle (Oxford Press, 1999).

     #42 and #43 are from Chandrasekaran & Arnott: "The Structures of DNA
     and RNA Helices in Oriented Fibers", pp 31-170 in "Landolt-Bornstein
     Numerical Data and Functional Relationships in Science and Technology"
     edited by W. Saenger (Springer-Verlag, 1990).

#44-#45 based on Alexeev et al., ``The structure of poly(dA) . poly(dT)
     as revealed by an X-ray fiber diffraction''. J. Biomol. Str. Dyn, 4,
     pp. 989-1011, 1987.

#46-#47 based on van Dam & Levitt, ``BII nucleotides in the B and C forms
     of natural-sequence polymeric DNA: a new model for the C form of DNA''.
     J. Mol. Biol., 304, pp. 541-561, 2000.

#48-#55 based on Premilat & Albiser, ``A new D-DNA form of poly(dA-dT) .
     poly(dA-dT): an A-DNA type structure with reversed Hoogsteen Pairing''.
     Eur. Biophys. J., 30, pp. 404-410, 2001 (and several other publications).



PyMOL wrapper to 3DNA fiber models

Recently, I heard from Thomas Holder, the PyMOL Principal Developer (Schrödinger, Inc.), that he had written a wrapper to the 3DNA fiber command. This PyMOL wrapper is implemented as part of his versatile PSICO library (see the PyMOL Wiki page Psico for details), and exposes the 55 fiber models based on Arnott and other’s work to the wide PyMOL user community. Moreover, the wrapper can be accessed directly from PyMOL (without installing PSICO), as shown below with an example:

PyMOL> run https://raw.githubusercontent.com/speleo3/pymol-psico/master/psico/creating.py

The resulting fiber model is the default B-form DNA of calf thymus, with twist of 36.0° and rise of 3.375 Å (see figure below). Note that cases in base sequence do not matter, so fiber ctagcg or fiber CTAgcg will give the same result.

The 3DNA fiber tool in PyMOL

Running PyMOL>help fiber gives the following detailed usages info, which should be sufficient to get one started with this fiber tool in PyMOL.

PyMOL> help fiber


    Run X3DNA's "fiber" tool.

    For the list of structure identification numbers, see for example:


    fiber seq [, num [, name [, rna [, single ]]]]


    seq = str: single letter code sequence or number of repeats for
    repeat models.

    num = int: structure identification number {default: 4}

    name = str: name of object to create {default: random unused name}

    rna = 0/1: 0=DNA, 1=RNA {default: 0}

    single = 0/1: 0=double stranded, 1=single stranded {default: 0}


    # environment (this could go into ~/.pymolrc or ~/.bashrc)
    os.environ["X3DNA"] = "/opt/x3dna-v2.3"

    # B or A DNA from sequence
    fiber CTAGCG
    fiber CTAGCG, 1, ADNA

    # double or single stranded RNA from sequence
    fiber AAAGGU, name=dsRNA, rna=1
    fiber AAAGGU, name=ssRNA, rna=1, single=1

    # poly-GC Z-DNA repeat model with 10 repeats
    fiber 10, 15 

Thanks to Thomas, for making another connection between PyMOL and 3DNA/DSSR. The other one is the DSSR-plugin for PyMOL to create “block” shaped cartoons for nucleic acid bases and base pairs.

See also 3DNA fiber models



3DNA C source code is available

As of release v2.3-2016sept06, the C source code of the 3DNA software package is available. The code can be found in the $X3DNA/src folder of the distributed tarballs for Linux, Mac OS X, and Windows. Since 3DNA is written in pure ANSI C, it can be compiled without changes on any platform with a modern C compiler.

The original codebase of 3DNA was written around year 2000. Up until v2.3, the infrastructure of 3DNA has remained stable for 16 years. During the time, 3DNA has been widely adopted in other bioinformatics pipelines and cited over 1,500 times. Over the years, I’ve received quite a few requests for 3DNA source code. However, due to complications of various factors (including software licensing), 3DNA had only been distributed in executable forms for the crucial C programs. Now, the C code of 3DNA is finally open source!

As before, users need to register on the 3DNA Forum to download the software. The download page also includes x3dna-v2.0.tar.gz that accompanied the 2008 Nature Protocols paper, and x3dna-v1.5.tar.gz that corresponded to the 2003 Nucleic Acids Research paper. Other than minor revisions to pass strict gcc compiler options, the v1.5 and v2.0 codebases are kept as they were. 3DNA is backward-compatible as far as the key base-pair parameters are concerned. Moreover, between v1.5 and v2.0, the command-line interface stays the same. The two previous versions are released for historical reasons. For example, one may notice some obvious “similarities” between 3DNA v1.5 and RNAView.

The development of DSSR and SNAP will push 3DNA into a brand new version (v3), which contains significant changes in functionality and interface, and is no longer compatible with previous versions. I intend to keep 3DNA v2.3 in a ‘maintenance’ mode: no new features are planed, but bug reports and user questions will be promptly addressed on the 3DNA Forum, as always. Making 3DNA open source should help further prompt its adoptions, and adaptations in structural bioinformatics of nucleic acids.

There are numerous types of software licenses, but none of them seems to be a good fit for my purpose. As a result, I’ve come up with a permissive “citation-ware” license with contents as below:

3DNA is a suite of software programs for the analysis,
rebuilding and visualization of 3-Dimensional Nucleic Acid
structures. Permission to use, copy, modify, and distribute
this suite for any purpose, with or without fee, is hereby
granted, and subject to the following conditions:

At least one of the 3DNA papers must be cited, including the
following two primary ones:

   1. Lu, X. J., & Olson, W. K. (2003). "3DNA: a software
      package for the analysis, rebuilding and visualization
      of three‐dimensional nucleic acid structures." Nucleic
      Acids Research, 31(17), 5108-5121.

   2. Lu, X. J., & Olson, W. K. (2008). "3DNA: a versatile,
      integrated software system for the analysis,
      rebuilding and visualization of three-dimensional
      nucleic-acid structures." Nature Protocols, 3(7),


Any 3DNA-related questions, comments, and suggestions are
welcome and should be directed to the open 3DNA Forum



The DSSR --block-color option

Upon user requests, I’ve recently introduced the --block-color option to DSSR, available as of v1.5.2-2016apr02. As its name implies, the --block-color option facilitate user customization of PyMOL rendered colors of the base rectangular blocks or their edges (e.g., the minor-groove) directly from the command-line. A simple example goes like this: --block-color='A blue; T red', which makes A colored blue and T colored red. As detailed below, the new option is very flexible with regard to the specification of colors, bases, or some edges to highlight. Before that, a little background is in order.

Background info

The DSSR cartoon-block representation follows the color convention of the original 3DNA blocview script, where A is red; C is yellow; G is green; T is blue; and U is cyan. If I remember correctly, the blocview coloring was based on the scheme adopted by the Nucleic Acid Database (NDB). To allow for some flexibility, 3DNA includes a config file named $X3DNA/config/raster3d.par where users can change the RGB values of the corresponding bases. However, I do not know if any user has ever bothered to play around with the configuration file for customized base colors.

Over the years, blocview-generated images have become popular, due to its simplicity, and (maybe more importantly) its endorsement by the NDB and PDB for nucleic acid structures. Via NDB, the blocview-generated images have also been used in RNA FRABASE 2.0 and RNA Structure Atlas. Nevertheless, the blocview script has several dependencies: MolScript for protein or DNA/RNA backbone ribbons, render from Raster3D for rendering, and ImageMagick for image processing. Moreover, the blocview script used by NDB/PDB is (likely to be) based on 3DNA v1.5, the last version before I left Rutgers in 2002.

Over the years, 3DNA has been continuously refined, with significant changes introduced in v2.0 around 2008 to accompany the Nature Protocols paper. Currently at v2.3, the codebase for 3DNA version 2 is in maintenance mode: the software will still be supported with identified bugs fixed, but no more new feature is planned. 3DNA version 3, as represented by DSSR and SNAP, is the way to go.

DSSR has no third-party dependencies

While creating DSSR, I set it as one of the design goals to make the program fully self-contained, without any third-party dependencies. Connections to other tools are clearly delineated via text files. If anything goes wrong, one can easily identify where the problem is. Experience over the past few years has unambiguously proved the effectiveness of this zero-dependency approach. Other than being directly distributed with an operating system, DSSR is the easiest to get up and running. Moreover, DSSR can be easily integrated into other pipelines, including Jmol and PyMOL, among many other bioinformatics tools.

For the cartoon-block representation, DSSR produces .r3d files that can be loaded into PyMOL, mixed and matched with other visualization styles PyMOL has to offer. No more direct dependencies on MolScript, Raster3D, and ImageMagick as is the case for blocview. It is also worth mentioning that DSSR does not need PyMOL to run. DSSR and PyMOL are connected via .r3d files, a process which can be streamlined with the Dssr_block PyMOL plugin.

DSSR releases before v1.5.2-2016apr02 have the color coding of base blocks fixed within the source code, following the default style of blocview. Over the past few months, I’ve received at least two explicit requests on customizing the default colors of DSSR-generated base blocks. The --block-color option has been introduced for this purpose.

Details of the --block-color option

The general format of the option is as follows:

--block-color='id color [; id2 color2 ...]'
  • id can be A, C, G, T, U, or the degenerated IUPAC code, including R, Y, N etc. See UPAC nucleotide code for details.
  • id can also be minor, major, upper, bottom, wc-edge to specify one of the six faces of a 3D rectangular block. See Fig.1D of the DSSR paper for details.

Fig.1D (DSSR 2015 NAR paper)

  • id can further be GC, AT, GU, pair, and variants thereof, to specify the colors of the corresponding long base-pair rectangular blocks.
  • color can be a common name (144 total), as specified in the RGB Color website. For example, red, magenta, light gray etc.
  • color can also be a single number in the range [0, 1] or [0, 255] to specify a shade of gray. DSSR repeat the number twice to get the RGB triple consisting of the same number.
  • color can further be a set of three space-delimited numbers to specify the RGB triple. Again, the number can be in [0, 1] or [0, 255]. Moreover, the three numbers can be put in square brackets. For example --block-color='A 0 1 1' and --block-color='A [0 1 1]' specify adenine to be colored with RGB triple [0 1 1] (aqua/cyan, corresponding to --block-color='A cyan').
  • More than one identity (bases) can be specified, separated by ; (,, :, or | also works). Note: within the PyMOL dssr_block plugin, only | or : can be used as a separator: comma (,) or semicolon (;) cannot be used as a separator within a PyMOL command argument (thanks to Thomas Holder for drawing this point to my attention).
  • Case does not matter when specifying id or color. So either ‘A’ or ‘a’, and ‘blue’ or ‘Blue’ or ‘BLUE’ can be used to make adenine blue: --block-color='a blue'.

Some example usages

While the above description may appears to be quite complicated, the actual usage of the --block-color option is very straightforward. As always, the cases are best made with concrete examples, as shown below using the classic Dickerson B-DNA dodecamer 355d.

# all bases in blue
x3dna-dssr -i=355d.pdb --cartoon-block=orient --block-color='N blue' -o=355d-all-blue.pml
# all WC-pairs in red, with the minor-groove edge in 'dim gary'
x3dna-dssr -i=355d.pdb --cartoon-block=orient --block-color='wc-pair red; minor dim gray' -o=355d-pair-minor.pml
# thymine (T) in purple, and the upper (+z) face in white
# see Figure below, which shows the two bases in WC-pairs are anti-parallel
x3dna-dssr -i=355d.pdb --cartoon-block=orient --block-color='T purple; upper 1' -o=355d-T-upper.pml

T-colord purple, +z (upper) faces white



Cartoon-block representation of quadruplex-duplex interface

Recently I read the article titled Structural Insights into the Quadruplex−Duplex 3′ Interface Formed from a Telomeric Repeat: A Potential Molecular Target by Krauss et al.. I quickly ran DSSR on the corresponding PDB entry is 5dww. Not surprisingly, DSSR can automatically identify reported key structural features (see output file 5dww.out for details), including the TAT triplet at the quadruplex−duplex junction, and the three G-quartets. Note that the result is based on biological assembly 1 in PDB file 5dww.pdb1 since the asymmetric unit contains four such molecules.

List of 4 multiplets
   1 nts=3 TAT 1:A.DT17,1:A.DA19,1:B.DT7
   2 nts=4 GGGG 1:A.DG1,1:A.DG5,1:A.DG9,1:A.DG14
   3 nts=4 GGGG 1:A.DG2,1:A.DG6,1:A.DG10,1:A.DG15
   4 nts=4 GGGG 1:A.DG3,1:A.DG7,1:A.DG11,1:A.DG16

As its title suggests, however, this blog post is about the cartoon-block representations. Four styles of such schematics are shown below, which can all be easily generated using DSSR/PyMOL.

Cartoon-block of 5dww in default style Cartoon-block of 5dww with base-pair blocks
in default style with base-pair blocks
Cartoon-block of 5dww with minor-groove highlighted Cartoon-block of 5dww with top-face highlighted
minor-groove highlighted top-face highlighted

The cartoon-block representations possess unique features not seen elsewhere. With the help of the dssr_block in PyMOL, they are extremely easy to generate. Such schematics are likely to become popular in illustrations of nucleic acid structures.



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