Getting started with 3D RNA modelling as a machine learner

A currated reading + watch list for beginners to get started with RNA modelling and desing.

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Getting started with 3D RNA modelling as a machine learner

Disclaimer. This document contains a curated list of resources I’ve been using in order to understand RNA biology and feel motivated to work on RNA design. I’m not an expert at all, so it is very likely that I’ve missed something important. Nonetheless, I do hope these resources will be useful for someone like myself (a computer scientist or machine learner without much background in biology but keen to enter the RNA world)!

Why RNA? A personal account. The Covid-19 pandemic was a very challenging period for me personally. At the same time, I got interested in reading about and understanding some of the science behind the disease (I had last formally studied biology in 10th grade and didn't enjoy all the fact memorisation). In 2022, I began my PhD at Cambridge with Pietro Liò and was interested in biomolecules. I inherently knew that I wanted to motivated my work as a machine learner by biological problems that (hopefully) matter, but I didn't know much biology so I started having conversations with Pietro and my labmates, as well as reading lots of popular science books. I found casual conversations and books far more approachable, unlike textbooks or courses. The pandemic was coming under control largely due to mRNA vaccines and I was feeling very inspired after reading about the scientific lives of Jennifer Doudna (Nobel Prize for CRISPR) and Venki Ramakrishnan (Nobel Prize for Ribosomes), as well as several of Siddhartha Mukherjee's books.

One uniting theme across everything I was reading and what was happening around me was the central role played by RNA molecules. Everybody (including myself) in deep learning was very excited about modelling proteins after AlphaFold happened, but a chance conversation with Roger Foo suggested that RNA might be something that’s currently more exciting and novel to biologists. I can’t explain precisely why, but I found something very interesting about RNA’s biochemistry, the intricate structures it folds into, and the stories of the research as well as the scientists behind them. I also found the community to be very welcoming and friendly to newcomers :)

Before you begin, if you like games, do try and play the introductory parts of Eterna. I can’t think of a better way to start your journey in learning about RNA while having some fun!

🧬 RNA Biochemistry and Structural Biology

  • I can highly recommend working through the RNA 3D Structure Course by Craig L. Zirbel and Neocles Leontis at Bowling Green State University. These self-contained notes are perfect for learning topic-by-topic at your own pace, and I find myself coming back to them frequently for reference. Here are three videos to go along with the notes:

  • For understanding the broader biological context, I simultaneously listened through MIT 7.016 Introductory Biology, which has really passionate lecturers and starts from the basics.

  • Thoughts on how to think (and talk) about RNA structure. An approachable yet thorough paper introducing RNA structure. I keep finding myself coming back to refer to some details in this manuscript and highly recommend it.

  • Lastly, if you want to work through a textbook, I’m sure there are several nice ones out there. I’ve been referencing Principles of Nucleic Acid Structure from time to time because Pietro Liò very kindly gave me his copy.

  • I’m also enjoying the new RNA Biology Coursera course by Rhiju Das and the Das Lab at Stanford. I would perhaps start here if I were starting from scratch.

🎨 RNA Design (and Biomolecule Design, more broadly)

  • Geometric Deep Learning for designing protein structure is very exciting at the moment! I would start by watching the latest talk I can find by David Baker (example) and reading/watching talks about the 3 main tools for protein structure modelling and design: AlphaFold2, ProteinMPNN, and RFdiffusion.

  • Rhiju Das’s excellent talk on 3D RNA Modelling and Design poses a question that then captivated me: Can we bring to bear the success of these tools from the world of proteins to RNA?

    • The accompanying perspective article.
    • RNAMake by Joseph Yesselman introduces a (non-ML) algorithm for aligning RNA motifs like lego blocks. It is particularly interesting to get a grasp of what sort of design scenarios one may be interested in. Joseph’s talk is also very nice.
    • I also read through Rhiju’s early works introducing the structure-based design paradigm for RNA; just sort his Google Scholar by date and scroll down. The paper on Rosetta for RNA felt like a very important one, in particular.
  • Ewan McRae’s talk on RNA origami, another emerging non-ML paradigm for structural RNA design through assembling modular building blocks.

  • For something a bit different but thought-provoking, Phil Holliger’s talk on evolutionary approaches to designing biomolecules. “Evolution is the most powerful algorithm currently known to man”, and its perhaps worth pondering how structure-based or de-novo design can augment, automate, or complement parts of the already very powerful directed evolution approach to designing biomolecules. Phil also briefly discusses XNAs which are designed nucleic acids with rather profound implications for the origins of life itself; I do encourage you to go down that rabbit hole!

📦 Data

  • RNASolo, a repository of processed PDB-derived RNA 3D structures. Go ahead and look at some of the RNA structures in the viewer, see if you like how they twist and turn!
  • RNA 3D Hub, a repository of RNA structural annotations, motifs, and non-redundant (clustered) sets.
  • Introduction to the PDB file format.

📝 More Papers