Upending the Conventional Wisdom About RNA

Sara Zaccara, PhD

In Shakespeare’s plays, messengers are among the most important characters, appearing on stage at critical moments to deliver news that dramatically influences how the tale unfolds. In biology, similar recurring “characters”—messenger RNAs (mRNAs)—appear within our cells. The role of mRNA is to deliver information encoded in our DNA to the cell body, where the information is translated into proteins that carry out nearly every task of life. In other words, mRNAs make sure our genome’s story is told. The actors who play Shakepeare’s messengers aren’t stars, and, until recently, the processes that control mRNA weren’t paid much attention either. It was believed that the quantity of mRNA dictated the quantity of protein produced. But in recent years, biologists have come to appreciate that something else is going on with mRNA that can dramatically affect how much of a given protein is made, with its attendant impacts on cell function. That has researchers like Sara Zaccara, PhD, Assistant Professor of Systems Biology, asking “What regulates these vital messengers?” The answers are helping biologists understand how cells adapt to changes in their environment and how control of mRNA contributes to disease and could open a rich trove of new therapeutics.

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