Researchers from Ohio State University have pinpointed a tiny piece of RNA that plays a large role in embryonic tissue formation. Understanding such small, often overlooked pieces can help illuminate the biological processes of the earliest stages of life.
In an embryo, there are specific genes that are activated and deactivated in an oscillating pattern in order to create new tissue. The timing of this oscillation is crucial: if the rhythm is off by just a minuscule margin, the tissue will form with defects or perhaps not at all. This is where a single segment of RNA called microRNA comes into play. MicroRNA do not produce proteins by themselves, but rather have smaller functions that can usually be carried out by binding to a gene or protein.
A strand of RNA, and also a visual aid to picture the oscillation of the gene mentioned above.
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Sponk.
In this case, the microRNA mir-125a-5p turns off the oscillating genes at the perfect time to form tissues properly. In this way, it acts like a genetic “timer”: ensuring that the genes are only active for exactly as long as they need to be. The novelty of the Ohio study is the discovery that such a small player can cause such a large effect in the ultimate result. As OSU professor of molecular genetics Susan Cole says in a recent OSU article,
“It’s a big deal to find that a single interaction between a microRNA and its target has this very profound effect when you interfere with its function…There are very few cases where interfering with just one microRNA during development can make this much of a difference.”
In fact, microRNAs were once treated as useless debris in the genetic field. It is only due to recent research that their power in tissue production is being realized. The tissue produced in this particular study is categorized as somites. Somites (pictured left, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) are segments of tissue present in every vertebrate that ultimately form ribs, vertebrae, and muscle. Thus a defect caused by the malfunction or absence of mir-125a-5p has serious implications down the road.
Painting a clearer picture of how such microRNA work will assist in developing prevention treatment for human conditions caused by a malfunction in embryonic development. In addition, diseases passed through the gene studied here may have potential to be altered or deleted with the proper and precise use of microRNA.
This OSU study was supported by the NSF, the NIH, and a Pelotonia Predoctoral Fellowship. For more information about research and funding at Ohio State University, read our free OSU funding report:
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