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The difficulty of protein structure alignment under the RMSD

Shuai Cheng Li

Author Affiliations

Department of Computer Science, City University of Hong Kong, Kowloon, Hong Kong

Algorithms for Molecular Biology 2013, 8:1  doi:10.1186/1748-7188-8-1

Published: 4 January 2013



Protein structure alignment is often modeled as the largest common point set (LCP) problem based on the Root Mean Square Deviation (RMSD), a measure commonly used to evaluate structural similarity. In the problem, each residue is represented by the coordinate of the Cαatom, and a structure is modeled as a sequence of 3D points. Out of two such sequences, one is to find two equal-sized subsequences of the maximum length, and a bijection between the points of the subsequences which gives an RMSD within a given threshold. The problem is considered to be difficult in terms of time complexity, but the reasons for its difficulty is not well-understood. Improving this time complexity is considered important in protein structure prediction and structural comparison, where the task of comparing very numerous structures is commonly encountered.


To study why the LCP problem is difficult, we define a natural variant of the problem, called the minimum aligned distance (MAD). In the MAD problem, the length of the subsequences to obtain is specified in the input; and instead of fulfilling a threshold, the RMSD between the points of the two subsequences is to be minimized. Our results show that the difficulty of the two problems does not lie solely in the combinatorial complexity of finding the optimal subsequences, or in the task of superimposing the structures. By placing a limit on the distance between consecutive points, and assuming that the points are specified as integral values, we show that both problems are equally difficult, in the sense that they are reducible to each other. In this case, both problems can be exactly solved in polynomial time, although the time complexity remains high.


We showed insights and techniques which we hope will lead to practical algorithms for the LCP problem for protein structures. The study identified two important factors in the problem’s complexity: (1) The lack of a limit in the distance between the consecutive points of a structure; (2) The arbitrariness of the precision allowed in the input values. Both issues are of little practical concern for the purpose of protein structure alignment. When these factors are removed, the LCP problem is as hard as that of minimizing the RMSD (MAD problem), and can be solved exactly in polynomial time.

Protein Structure; Alignment; RMSD; LCP