DERNA Enables Pareto Optimal RNA Design

Xinyu Gu, Yuanyuan Qi, Mohammed El-Kebir

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The design of an RNA sequence v that encodes an input target protein sequence w is a crucial aspect of messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine development. There are an exponential number of possible RNA sequences for a single target protein due to codon degeneracy. These potential RNA sequences can assume various secondary structure conformations, each with distinct minimum free energy (MFE), impacting thermodynamic stability and mRNA half-life. Furthermore, the presence of species-specific codon usage bias, quantified by the codon adaptation index (CAI), plays a vital role in translation efficiency. While earlier studies focused on optimizing either MFE or CAI, recent research has underscored the advantages of simultaneously optimizing both objectives. However, optimizing one objective comes at the expense of the other. In this work, we present the Pareto Optimal RNA Design problem, aiming to identify the set of Pareto optimal solutions for which no alternative solutions exist that exhibit better MFE and CAI values. Our algorithm DEsign RNA (DERNA) uses the weighted sum method to enumerate the Pareto front by optimizing convex combinations of both objectives. We use dynamic programming to solve each convex combination in O ( | w | 3 ) time and O ( | w | 2 ) space. Compared with a CDSfold, previous approach that only optimizes MFE, we show on a benchmark data set that DERNA obtains solutions with identical MFE but superior CAI. Moreover, we show that DERNA matches the performance in terms of solution quality of LinearDesign, a recent approach that similarly seeks to balance MFE and CAI. We conclude by demonstrating our method's potential for mRNA vaccine design for the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)179-196
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Computational Biology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 1 2024


  • RNA sequence design
  • dynamic programming
  • multiobjective optimization
  • reverse translation and mRNA vaccine design

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Computational Mathematics
  • Genetics
  • Molecular Biology
  • Computational Theory and Mathematics
  • Modeling and Simulation


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