Identification of non-protein-coding RNAs (ncRNAs) in genomes is a crucial task for not only molecular cell biology but also bioinformatics. Secondary structures of ncRNAs are employed as a key feature of ncRNA analysis since biological functions of ncRNAs are deeply related to their secondary structures. Although the minimum free energy (MFE) structure of an RNA sequence is regarded as the most stable structure, MFE alone could not be an appropriate measure for identifying ncRNAs since the free energy is heavily biased by the nucleotide composition. Therefore, instead of MFE itself, several alternative measures for identifying ncRNAs have been proposed such as the structure conservation index (SCI) and the base pair distance (BPD), both of which employ MFE structures. However, these measurements are unfortunately not suitable for identifying ncRNAs in some cases including the genome-wide search and incur high false discovery rate. In this study, we propose improved measurements based on SCI and BPD, applying generalized centroid estimators to incorporate the robustness against low quality multiple alignments. Our experiments show that our proposed methods achieve higher accuracy than the original SCI and BPD for not only human-curated structural alignments but also low quality alignments produced by CLUSTAL W. Furthermore, the centroid-based SCI on CLUSTAL W alignments is more accurate than or comparable with that of the original SCI on structural alignments generated with RAF, a high quality structural aligner, for which twofold expensive computational time is required on average. We conclude that our methods are more suitable for genome-wide alignments which are of low quality from the point of view on secondary structures than the original SCI and BPD.
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