Eterna/About Eterna/Why RNA

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RNA Nucleotides

Why is RNA important ?

RNA is often called the "Dark Matter of Biology." While originally thought to be an unstable cousin of DNA, recent discoveries have shown that RNA can do amazing things. They play key roles in the fundamental processes of life and disease, from protein synthesis and HIV replication, to cellular control. However, the full biological and medical implications of these discoveries is still being worked out.

What's RNA made of?

RNA is made of four nucleotides (A, C, G and U, which stand for adenine, cytosine, guanine, and uracil). Chemically, each of these building blocks is made of atoms of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, and hydrogen. When you design RNAs with Eterna, you're really creating a chain of these nucleotides.

How does RNA fold?

The most basic rules for folding RNA are similar to the famous rules for the DNA double helix that were figured out by Watson and Crick. There is a natural tendency for A, to stick to U, and for C, to stick to G. So when an RNA is synthesized, it doesn't just appear as a straight chain. It typically doubles back on itself to form helices that allow bases to pair up. The Eterna project is trying to gain mastery over this folding phenomenon. It turns out that there are also other kinds of pairs (where A, sticks to G, for example) which can contribute to intricate 3D shapes and will be explored in the next generation of Eterna.

What do RNAs do?

Scientists do not yet understand all of RNA's roles, but we already know about a large collection of RNAs that are critical for life: (see the Thermus Thermophilus image representing following points)

  • mRNAs are short copies of a cell's DNA genome that gets cut up, pasted, spliced, and otherwise remixed before getting translated into proteins.
  • rRNA forms the core machinery of an ancient machine, the ribosome. This machine synthesizes the proteins of your cells and all living cells, and is the target of most antibiotics.
  • miRNAs (microRNAs) are short molecules (about 22-letters) that are used by all complex cells as commands for silencing genes and appear to have roles in cancer, heart disease, and other medical problems.
  • Riboswitches are ubiquitous in bacteria. They sense all sorts of small molecules that could be food or signals from other bacteria, and turn on or off genes by changing their shapes. These are interesting targets for new antibiotics.
  • Ribozymes are RNAs that can act as enzymes. They catalyze chemical reactions like protein synthesis and RNA splicing, and provide evidence of RNA's dominance in a primordial stage of Life's evolution.
  • Retroviruses, like Hepatitis C, poliovirus, and HIV, are very large RNAs coated with proteins.
  • And much much more... shRNA, piRNA, snRNA, and other new classes of important RNAs are being discovered every year.


Thermus Thermophilus - Large Subunit Ribosomal RNA
Source: Center for Molecular Biology



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