The models -- showing that RNA behaves differently depending on the temperature of its environment -- may help biologists better understand how life evolved on Earth.
The models suggest that high temperatures give twisted strands of RNA the flexibility to fold into many different shapes, while low temperatures cause it to collapse into a single shape.
Ralf Bundschuh, assistant professor of physics at Ohio State University, presented the results March 4 at the meeting of the American Physical Society in Austin, Texas.
RNA plays many different roles in a cell, such as the production of proteins that perform necessary functions, Bundschuh explained.
"People are probably more familiar with the genetic role of DNA, in which two strands of complementary base units bind to each other to create a double-helix structure. RNA behaves very much like a DNA molecule that has lost its complementary partner. In order for one strand of bases to form pairs, the strand must bend back onto itself -- it must fold," he said.
The structure of folded RNA resembles a severely twisted rubber band, with the shape of loops and branches determining its biological function.