Non-coding RNAs: Tiny Regulators with great potential
Jens Kortmann, Ruhr-University Bochum
With the new millennium, it has become clear that ribonucleic acid (RNA) is not just a passive carrier of genetic information from DNA to functional proteins. In all kingdoms of life, from microbes to higher plants and humans, RNAs fulfill multifaceted functions due to their ability to adopt complex structures and interact with other RNAs or small molecules (1). After extensive data-gathering from diverse genomes, current scientific efforts aim at deciphering the corresponding “RNomes”. As a result, the universality of regulation by means of non-(protein)-coding RNAs became evident. Non-coding RNAs are effective regulatory molecules that can influence cellular functions in response to external signals such as metabolites, pH or temperature (2). Small RNAs (sRNAs) function by pairing with their target messenger RNA (mRNA) encoded elsewhere on the chromosome. The target mRNA is either degraded or constantly blocked by the sRNA which hinders translation into a functional protein. In contrast to this long range regulation, some mRNAs contain built-in sensor elements next to the protein-coding sequence and thereby regulate its ability to initiate protein synthesis or being degraded. As they are sensitive, efficient and rapidly responding gene control elements, such nanosize regulators in naturally occurring RNAs can be applied as new molecular parts for synthetic biology, e.g. green biotechnology, which uses plants as biofactories. In pathogenic bacteria, non-coding RNAs are widely used as key regulatory elements responsible for the regulation of cellular processes involved in infection of the human host. An interesting question is whether these RNAs posses certain watermark-motifs which might help to identify them and which could be targeted by custom-made drugs.
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