Novel Insights into the Gene Regulatory Potential of Messenger RNA Structures
Andreas Wachter, University of Tuebingen

Messenger RNA (mRNA) serves as an intermediate in the flow of genetic information from DNA to protein in all living organisms. In contrast to double-stranded DNA and extensively folded proteins, mRNA was, for a long time, considered to be a linear macromolecule, with a rather passive role as the matrix in the process of protein translation. However, in the last decade, a wealth of studies has revealed that numerous mRNAs can form intricate structures, which fulfill critical functions in controlling gene activity. This striking feature of some mRNA classes is exemplified by so-called riboswitches, mRNA regions that both serve as sensors for specific molecules and regulate expression of the corresponding mRNAs. Riboswitch function typically involves binding of the ligand molecule to the sensor domain, which induces structural alterations in the mRNA linked to changes in its expression. These findings have not only broadened our view of the functional diversity of mRNAs, but they have also provided novel insights into previously unknown gene regulatory principles. It can be anticipated that related mechanisms are more widespread and that their investigation will both contribute to our understanding of fundamental biological processes and provide intriguing tools for engineering approaches.

In this talk, first an overview of our current picture of gene regulation by structured mRNA elements in both bacteria and higher organisms will be provided. Second, it will be described which strategies are pursued to discover novel structured mRNA elements and how these findings may influence our understanding of gene regulation. Finally, the advantages of utilizing structured mRNAs for gene control will be discussed and future approaches for developing RNA switches in biotechnological engineering will be evaluated.

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