Stanford Study Reveals Entirely New Class of Biomolecules—GlycoRNAs; Senior Author Terms Discovery “A Bombshell” Because It Suggests That There Are Biomolecular Pathways in the Cell That Are Completely Unknown to Us

Stanford researchers have discovered a new kind of biomolecule that could play a significant role in the biology of all living things. The novel biomolecule, dubbed glycoRNA, is a small ribbon of ribonucleic acid (RNA) with sugar molecules, called glycans, dangling from it. Up until now, the only kinds of similarly sugar-decorated biomolecules known to science were fats (lipids) and proteins. These glycolipids and glycoproteins appear ubiquitously in and on animal, plant and microbial cells, contributing to a wide range of processes essential for life. The newfound glycoRNAs, neither rare nor furtive, were hiding in plain sight simply because no one thought to look for them--understandably so, given that their existence flies in the face of well-established cellular biology. A study, published online on May17, 2021 Cell, describes the findings. The article is titled “Small RNAs Are Modified With N-Glycans and Displayed on the Surface of Living Cells.” "This is a stunning discovery of an entirely new class of biomolecules," said Carolyn Bertozzi (photo), PhD, the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass professor at Stanford's School of Humanities and Sciences, the Baker Family Director of Stanford Chemistry, Engineering, and Medicine for Human Health, and the study's senior author. "It's really a bombshell because the discovery suggests that there are biomolecular pathways in the cell that are completely unknown to us." "What's more," Dr. Bertozzi added, "some of the RNAs modified by glycans to form glycoRNA have a sordid history of association with autoimmune diseases." Dr. Bertozzi gives credit for the discovery to the study's lead author Ryan Flynn, MD, PhD, who worked for months in her lab as a postdoctoral fellow chasing down glycoRNA, based mostly on a hunch. "I came into Carolyn's lab asking, 'what if glycans can bind to RNA?,” which turned out to be something that hadn't been explored before," said Dr. Flynn, now an Assistant Professor at Boston Children's Hospital, in the Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology. "I just like wondering and asking questions and it was immensely gratifying to arrive at this unexpected answer."

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