Researchers are on a seemingly endless quest to discover precisely how DNA and RNA function. A great deal remains a mystery in the field of genetics. In fact up until around one year ago, when scientists captured a photo of DNA, no one knew with absolute certainty what it looked like. The double helix idea was always just a theory.
In a recent ground breaking discovery researchers from the University of Chicago witnessed a never before scene mechanism of gene expression. The researchers found a single gene that encodes two separate proteins from the same sequence of messenger RNA. Let me explain.
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DNA and RNA are similar in that they both contain a genetic blueprint of an organism. They do however differ in several ways. First, RNA comes in three forms: messenger, transfer, and ribosomal.
mRNA (messenger)- The function of mRNA is to carry genetic information from the DNA in the nucleus to the ribosomes of a cell.
tRNA (transfer)- The function of tRNA is to bring the correct amino acid to the ribosomes in the cystosol.
rRNA (ribosomal)- The function of rRNA is to create new ribosomes.
They also differ in that they each incorporate a different sugar molecule in their structure. Also, where DNA has two strands of nucleotides, RNA has only one strand. For the sake of simplicity think of RNA as DNA’s co-conspirator in the continuation of life. In fact, some researchers speculate that life originally depended entirely on self-replicating RNA, rather than the DNA, RNA, and proteins that it depends on to proliferate today.
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So, up until this point we thought we had a pretty decent, overall idea of how DNA and RNA functioned. This study just came out of left field and whispered into the collective ear of geneticists around the world: “You know nothing…”
The study is a big deal because it is the first time that scientists have ever viewed anything even remotely similar. According to Christopher Gomez, MD, PhD, professor and chairman of the Department of Neurology at the University of Chicago, who led the study,
This is the first example of a mechanism in a higher organism in which one gene creates two proteins from the same mRNA transcript, simultaneously. It represents a paradigm shift in our understanding of how genes ultimately encode proteins.
There is a special sequence in the mRNA known as an internal ribosomal entry site (IRES), a site that tells ribosomes to create a protein from the mRNA sequence. The IRES is normally found at the beginning of an RNA sequence, however, in the particular mRNA sequence that the researchers viewed the IRES was in the middle of the sequence, alerting ribosomes to initiate the creation of a second protein from the same sequence.
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This is especially exciting news since it creates a beacon of hope for further applicable genetic discovery, not just DNA origami. Just think, we only recently learned in the last couple decades that genetic predisposition isn’t set in stone, and that epigenetics allow us to alter our genetic expression and the genetic expression and predisposition of our children.
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