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Jonghwan Kim Receives Grant to Study Preterm Births

The Burroughs Wellcome Fund has awarded Jonghwan Kim, an assistant professor in the Department of Molecular Biosciences at The University of Texas at Austin, a four-year, $600,000 grant to study the biological complexities of preterm birth.

Surprisingly, little is known about the biological mechanisms that occur during birth.  Even less is known about what causes preterm birth.  Defined as babies born before 37 weeks, preterm birth occurs in nearly 13 percent of all U.S births, with African-Americans and Hispanics having an even higher rate.

Preterm Birth is a major public health problem. Many preterm births lead to long-term health problems and developmental difficulties. There are also the sociological issues of families going bankrupt and marriages dissolving.

Kim’s research project is titled “Identifying genetic factors controlling normal and abnormal placental development.”

Burroughs Wellcome Fund’s ultimate goal is to help develop preventive strategies by enabling interdisciplinary teams to collaborate in learning more about preterm birth.

Discovery Sheds New Light on RNA Regulation

Scientists at the University of Texas at Austin have disproven a decades-old assumption about the molecular machinery responsible for producing proteins in all living things. The discovery could force researchers to rethink how they interpret results of experiments related to this machinery.

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Floating in every cell in your body are molecules of RNA, which act as templates for all the different flavors of protein that are essential for life. Often, an RNA molecule contains within itself elements that control if and when to make protein. Other elements can help guide the RNA to the right places inside the cell. The assumption, going right back to the earliest studies of gene regulation, was that control elements embedded in one RNA only affect what happens to that RNA.

Paul Macdonald, a professor of molecular biosciences, and his team discovered that a control element in one RNA can affect the production of proteins from other RNAs. Control elements can even affect production of proteins from completely different types of RNAs. They made the discovery by studying the developing embryos of fruit flies.

For researchers trying to understand what individual genes do and how they get translated into proteins, this poses a problem. A typical approach involves "knocking out" a gene, by genetically engineering mutations in it's associated RNA, to see what biological processes break down. Macdonald's finding suggests that removing one RNA could potentially affect the expression of other RNAs.

The findings were published online in the open access journal eLife on April 22.