University of Iowa scientists have made a discovery that broadens understanding of a rapidly developing area of biology known as functional genomics and sheds more light on the mysterious, so-called “junk DNA” that makes up the majority of the human genome.

The team, led by Beverly Davidson, Ph.D., a Roy J. Carver Biomedical Research Chair in Internal Medicine and UI professor of internal medicine, physiology and biophysics, and neurology, have discovered a new mechanism for the expression of microRNAs — short segments of RNA that do not give rise to a protein, but do play a role in regulating protein production. In their study, Davidson and colleagues not only discovered that microRNAs could be expressed in a different way than previously known, they also found that some of the junk DNA is not junk at all, but instead consists of sequences that can generate microRNAs.

“Not so many years ago our understanding was that DNA was transcribed to RNA, which was then translated to protein. Now we know that the levels of control are much more varied and that many RNAs don’t make protein, but instead regulate the expression of proteins,” Davidson explained. “Non-coding RNA like microRNAs represent a set of refined control switches, and understanding how microRNAs work and how they are themselves controlled is likely to be very important in many areas of biology and medicine.”

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