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Here are 5 RNAs that are stepping out of DNA’s shadow

These molecules play crucial roles in human health and disease

POWERFUL STUFF No longer seen as just a messenger for DNA, ribonucleic acid in its many forms can influence cancer, protect against viruses and defend the brain from illness.


DNA is the glamour molecule of the genetics world. Its instructions are credited with defining appearance, personality and health. And the proteins that result from DNA’s directives get credit for doing most of the work in our cells. RNA, if mentioned at all, is considered a mere messenger, a go-between — easy to ignore. Until now.

RNAs, composed of strings of genetic letters called nucleotides, are best known for ferrying instructions from the genes in our DNA to ribosomes, the machines in cells that build proteins. But in the last decade or so, researchers have realized just how much more RNAs can do — how much they control, even. In particular, scientists are finding RNAs that influence health and disease yet have nothing to do with being messengers. The sheer number and variety of noncoding RNAs, those that don’t ferry protein-building instructions, give some clues to their importance. So far, researchers have cataloged more than 25,000 genes with instructions for noncoding RNAs in the human genome, or genetic instruction book (SN: 10/13/18, p. 5). That’s more than the estimated 21,000 or so genes that code for proteins.

Those protein-coding genes make up less than 2 percent of the DNA in the human genome. Most of the rest of the genome is copied into noncoding RNAs, and the vast majority of those haven’t been characterized yet, says Pier Paolo Pandolfi of Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. “We can’t keep studying just two volumes of the book of life. We really need to study them all.” Scientists no longer see the RNAs that aren’t envoys between DNA and ribosomes as worthless junk. “I believe there are hundreds, if not thousands, of noncoding RNAs that have a function,” says Harvard University molecular biologist Jeannie Lee. She and other scientists are beginning to learn what these formerly ignored molecules do. It turns out that they are involved in every step of gene activity, from turning genes on and off to tweaking final protein products. Those revelations were unthinkable 20 years ago.

Back in the 1990s, Lee says, scientists thought only proteins could turn genes on and off. Finding that RNAs were in charge “was a very odd concept.” Here are five examples among the many noncoding RNAs that are now recognized as movers and shakers in the human body, for good and ill.

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