Once considered unimportant "junk DNA," scientists have learned that DNA that codes for non-coding RNA (ncRNA) — RNA molecules that do not translate into proteins — plays a crucial role in cellular function. Mutations in ncRNA are already known to be associated with a number of conditions, such as cancer, autism, and Alzheimer's disease. Now, through the use of "deep sequencing," a technology used to sequence the genetic materials of the human genome, Dr. Noam Shomron of Tel Aviv University's Sackler Faculty of Medicine has discovered that when infected with a virus, ncRNA gives off biological signals that indicate the presence of an infectious agent. Not only does this finding give researchers a more complete picture of the interactions between pathogens and the body, but it provides scientists with a new avenue for fighting off infections. Dr. Shomron’s findings were first published online on March 9, 2012 in the journal Nucleic Acids Research. "If we see that the number of particular RNA molecules increases during a specific viral infection, we can develop treatments to stop or slow their proliferation," explains Dr. Shomron. In the lab, the researchers conducted a blind study in which some cells were infected with the HIV virus and others were left uninfected. Using the deep sequencer, which can read tens of millions of sequences per experiment, they analyzed the ncRNA to discover if the infection could be detected in non-coding DNA materials. The researchers were able to identify with 100% accuracy both infected and non-infected cells — all because the ncRNA was giving off significant signals, explains Dr. Shomron. These signals, which can include either the increase or decrease of specific ncRNA molecules within a cell, most likely have biological significance, he says.
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