New RNA Modification Added to Epitranscriptomic Library

February 17, 2016

In 1956, Francis Crick—co-discoverer of DNA’s helical structure—postulated what is now considered to be a central doctrine of the biological sciences stating that “The central dogma of molecular biology deals with the detailed residue-by-residue transfer of sequential information. It states that such information cannot be transferred back from protein to either protein or nucleic acid.” What Crick was suggesting was that DNA makes RNA and, in turn, RNA makes protein.

In the time since the initial proposal of the central dogma, scientists have come to understand that there are not only instances of reverse information flow from RNA to DNA, but chemical alterations to RNA structures that can have a profound effect on gene regulation. The discovery of these alterations has added a critical dimension to how scientists view the genetic code and recently spawned an entirely new field of study within molecular biology: the epitranscriptome.

Now, a recent study by scientists at the University of Chicago and Tel Aviv University has revealed evidence that provides a promising new lever in the control of gene expression. The researchers describe a small chemical modification to RNA that can significantly boost the conversion of genes to proteins.      

The findings from this study were published recently in Nature through an article entitled “The dynamic N1-methyladenosine methylome in eukaryotic messenger RNA.”

"Epigenetics, the regulation of gene expression beyond the primary information encoded by DNA, was thought until recently to be mediated by modifications of proteins and DNA," explained co-senior study author Gidi Rechavi, Ph.D., chair in oncology at Tel Aviv University’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine and head of the Cancer Research Center at Sheba Medical Center. "The new findings bring RNA to a central position in epigenetics."

“This discovery further opens the window on a whole new world of biology for us to explore," added co-senior study author Chuan He, Ph.D., professor in the department of chemistry and investigator within the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at the University of Chicago. "These modifications have a major impact on almost every biological process."

Previously, Dr. He’s laboratory discovered the first RNA demethylase that reverses the most prevalent mRNA methylation N6-methyladenosine (m6A), implying that the addition and removal of the methyl group could dramatically affect these messengers and the outcome of gene expression—as also seen for DNA and histones—which subsequent research found to be true.

In the current study, the investigators described a second functional mRNA methylation, N1-methyladenosine (m1A). Like m6A, the small modification is evolutionarily conserved and common, present in humans, rodents, and yeast. However, its location and effect on gene expression reflect a new form of epitranscriptome control.

"The discovery of m1A is extremely important, not only because of its own potential in affecting biological processes but also because it validates the hypothesis that there is not just one functional modification," Dr. He stated. "There could be multiple modifications at different sites where each may carry a distinct message to control the fate and function of mRNA."

From their findings, the research team estimates that that m1A may be present on transcripts of more than one out of three expressed human genes—suggesting that m1A, like m6A, may be a mechanism by which cells rapidly boost the expression of hundreds or thousands of specific genes.

"mRNA is the perfect place to regulate gene expression because they can code information from transcription and directly impact translation—you can add a consensus sequence to a group of genes and use a modification of the sequence to readily control several hundred transcripts simultaneously," Dr. He said. "If you want to rapidly change the expression of several hundred or a thousand genes, this offers the best way."

The scientists were excited by their findings and have plans for future studies that will examine the role of m1A methylation in human development, for diseases such as diabetes and cancer, and its potential as a target for therapeutic uses.

"This study represents a breakthrough discovery in the exciting, nascent field of the 'epitranscriptome,' which is how RNAs are regulated, akin to the genome and the epigenome," commented Christopher Mason, Ph.D., associate professor at Weill Cornell Medicine, who was not affiliated with the study. "What is important about this work is that m6A was recently found to enrich at the ends of genes, and now we know that m1A is what is helping regulate the beginning of genes, and this opens up many questions about revealing the 'epitranscriptome code' just like the histone code or the genetic code."

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