Several years ago, biologists discovered a new type of genetic material known as long noncoding RNA. This RNA does not code for proteins and is copied from sections of the genome once believed to be "junk DNA." Since then, scientists have found evidence that long noncoding RNA, or lncRNA, plays roles in many cellular processes, including guiding cell fate during embryonic development. However, it has been unknown exactly how lncRNA exerts this influence. Inspired by historical work showing that structure plays a role in the function of other classes of RNA such as transfer RNA, MIT biologists have now deciphered the structure of one type of lncRNA and used that information to figure out how it interacts with a cellular protein to control the development of heart muscle cells. This is one of first studies to link the structure of lncRNAs to their function. "Emerging data points to fundamental roles for many of these molecules in development and disease, so we believe that determining the structure of lncRNAs is critical for understanding how they function," says Laurie Boyer, Ph.D., the Irwin and Helen Sizer Career Development Associate Professor of Biology and Biological Engineering at MIT and the senior author of the study, which appears in the journal Molecular Cell on September 8, 2016. Learning more about how lncRNAs control cell differentiation could offer a new approach to developing drugs for patients whose hearts have been damaged by cardiovascular disease, aging, or cancer. The paper's lead author is MIT postdocDr. Zhihong Xue. Other MIT authors are undergraduate Boryana Doyle and Sarnoff Fellow Arune Gulati, Ph.D. Scott Hennelly, Irina Novikova, and Karissa Sanbonmatsu of Los Alamos National Laboratory are also authors of the paper.
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