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Appreciating RNA in a whole new way

Medicine@Yale, 2010 - Jan Feb


Not so long ago, biology textbooks depicted proteins as the workhorses that carry out most biochemical reactions in cells, while pigeonholing RNA as a mere middleman between DNA and proteins. But over the past twenty years, it has become clear that RNA can play far more complex roles.

In the December 3, 2009 issue of Nature, scientists in the laboratory of Ronald R. Breaker, Ph.D., the Henry Ford II Professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology and Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, describe a slew of previously unknown RNA-based structures that may carry out complex biochemical functions.

First author Zasha Weinberg, Ph.D., and colleagues in Breaker’s lab report in detail on two large, intricate structures built entirely of RNA in bacteria. One, GOLLD, appears to help viruses that infect bacteria to burst out of infected cells so that they can seek new targets. Another, HEARO, might be a mobile genetic element that causes spontaneous genetic change.

Breaker says the research helps us come to grips with how cells such as our own really function. “Every time we feel as though we’re giving RNA just about the right amount of credit,” he says, “we find more amazing RNAs.”

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