Lewis Wolpert: 'There is now evidence that RNA - a relation of DNA - is involved in diseases ranging from cancer to schizophrenia'

DNA, Deoxyribonucleic Acid, the material of genes, is doing very well. Last year there were worldwide celebrations for the 50th year since Watson and Crick discovered its double-helical structure, and so understood how it replicated. It is at the core of life, for in all cells it is DNA alone that replicates.

DNA, Deoxyribonucleic Acid, the material of genes, is doing very well. Last year there were worldwide celebrations for the 50th year since Watson and Crick discovered its double-helical structure, and so understood how it replicated. It is at the core of life, for in all cells it is DNA alone that replicates.

DNA is everywhere in the news, with all the so-called ethical problems of genetics, and with human DNA and that of other animals having been sequenced. But what about its near relation, RNA, ribonucleic acid? It must feel very neglected, even jealous, for it too plays a key role in cellular life - and a new and exciting role has just been revealed.

DNA carries the code for proteins. But in 1960, how the information from the DNA was used to make proteins was not known. It was thought that little particles containing RNA, ribosomes, carried the message from the DNA for making proteins. But there was evidence that this could not be true, as no new ribosomes were made when new proteins had to be made.

There was a meeting on Good Friday in 1960 in Sydney Brenner's rooms at King's College in Cambridge to discuss the problem. It was at this meeting that, as Brenner has said "the penny dropped" when he and Crick suddenly realised that there must be another RNA carrying the message.

He then arranged with the French molecular biologist François Jacob to try to identify the messenger RNA while they were both in California, where they had been invited for quite different reasons. They worked very hard but things were going wrong with their experiments. They went down to the beach to rest and reflect, as time was running out. Reflection led Brenner to suddenly leap up and shout, "It's the magnesium". They were not adding enough. Back they went, and it worked, and they discovered messenger RNA. Both have Nobel Prizes, but this should have been another one.

Messenger RNA carries the code for making proteins from the DNA to the ribosome. The messenger RNA is synthesized on the DNA gene for the protein, which acts as a template. It then leaves the DNA and binds to a ribosome and in a quite complex process the code is then translated into the sequence of amino acids that make up a particular protein.

It is, of course, proteins that are the wizards of the cell, as they determine the form and function of the cell; for example, in muscle it is special proteins that enable the muscle to contract. Genes, by comparison, are rather boring and passive, but turning them on allows messenger RNA to be made, and thus the relevant proteins. Enormous efforts are devoted to studying when and where genes are turned on during embryonic development, as well as in situations such as cancer where the wrong genes are turned on.

A peculiar feature of human DNA and related animals is that most - almost 98 per cent - of the DNA does not code for proteins, and so it has been a puzzle as to what it does. Some of it is for controlling when and where a gene is turned on, as special proteins bind to these control regions and determine the on/off status of a gene. But the new view is that much of the DNA codes for special non-coding RNAs, which act as regulatory signals. These non-coding RNAs can act by binding to messenger RNAs and effectively making them inactive, and they can also act as regulators of gene activity.

Much of the DNA is thus not for protein-coding but for these regulatory non-coding RNAs. As many as 20 per cent of all human genes can effectively be silenced by these non-coding RNAs. There is also evidence that these RNAs are involved in human diseases ranging from cancer to schizophrenia. RNA has now an elevated status. The level of complexity in the cell was known to be high before this discovery, but now goes even higher.

It is a major problem to determine and understand the interactions that may occur between thousands of different molecules. But the RNA community of scientists is very excited.

Lewis Wolpert is Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine at University College, London

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special
tv
News
Claudia Winkleman and co-host Tess Daly at the Strictly Come Dancing final
people
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice finalists Mark Wright and Bianca Miller
tvBut who should win The Apprentice?
News
news
Extras
indybest
News
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
Sport
Brendan Rodgers looks on from the touchline
SPORT
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Analyst - Bristol

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An IT Support Analyst is required to join the ...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick