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.

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