Medical Center Researcher Named to Head RNA Society

June 06, 2006

Lynne E. Maquat, Ph.D., the Dean's Endowed Chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the University of Rochester Medical Center, has been elected president of the RNA Society. The Society was formed in 1993 to encourage the sharing of experimental results and emerging concepts in ribonucleic acid research.

Gene expression is the process by which information stored in genes is converted into proteins that make up the body’s structures and carry out its functions. While genetic instructions are stored in chains of deoxyribonucleic acids (DNA), they are put into practice by ribonucleic acids (RNA).

The multidisciplinary and international RNA Society has more than 1,000 members.  It aims to promote research in developmental biology, evolutionary biology, biochemistry, biomedical sciences, chemistry, genetics and virology as they relate to questions of RNA structure and function. As Society president, Maquat is charged with developing long range plans to increase Society membership, strengthen the annual meetings program and enhance the content of the Society’s publication, The RNA Journal. Her term began earlier this year and runs until 2007. 

“There are many types of RNA, and the nature of RNA makes for remarkable capabilities worthy of study,” Maquat said. “Messenger RNA was long thought to be a passive ‘middleman’ in the expression of genes that encode proteins. Research during the past 10 years, however, has led us to realize that the regulated processing, movement and destruction of messenger RNAs in cells exerts a great deal of control over gene expression. Furthermore, RNA comprises the genetic material of some viruses, like the one that causes AIDS. It’s also thought to be the primordial genetic material, having passed on genetic traits before DNA came into play.”

For many years, Maquat’s work has significantly advanced the understanding of RNA. Most recently her work has focused on how human cells protect themselves from constant and potentially destructive changes in gene expression through an RNA-mediated mechanism. According to a recently published article, her team’s research is important because the protection itself can contribute to disease, and the ability to side-step it may lead to new treatments for hundreds of genetic disorders.

Messenger RNA (mRNA) is a modified copy of DNA that carries genetic instructions to cellular factories called ribosomes, which build proteins by “reading” mRNA templates. Over time, genes evolve to show changes in their makeup. Some changes, or mutations, have no impact, some provide advantages making organisms more likely to survive and others cause disease. Two frequently occurring, damaging classes of mutations generate premature “stop reading” signals (stop codons) within mRNAs. Called “frameshift” or “nonsense” mutations, they order the genetic process to stop reading part way through the instructions, resulting in the building of incomplete proteins.

Affected mRNAs create shortened, disabled proteins that can sabotage natural processes by not working or by competing for spots usually held by their full-length counterparts. In recent years, Maquat’s team has revealed the existence of a natural surveillance system that determines which mRNAs pass muster as legitimate templates (no mutations), and that sees to the destruction of the rest. They also found that the mRNA screening process, called nonsense-mediated mRNA decay (NMD), can nearly eliminate the supply of an mRNA template for an essential protein because the mRNA has acquired a nonsense codon. Maquat’s ongoing work is important because it has the potential to lead to drug-based gene therapies that correct for disease-causing protein shortages.

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