Odd RNA Converts Stem Cells into Neurons

By Travis, J. | Science News, March 20, 2004 | Go to article overview

Odd RNA Converts Stem Cells into Neurons


Travis, J., Science News


Like a bicycle messenger carrying blueprints across town, ribonucleic acid, or RNA, typically ferries protein-building instructions across a cell. Scientists exploring how brain cells form have found evidence that RNA does a lot more, however.

They've discovered a new kind of RNA that can transform unspecialized rodent brain cells into full-fledged neurons. By binding to a single protein, the RNA turns on dozens of neuron-specific genes, researchers report in the March 19 Cell.

"It's interesting that a single, small RNA can act as a switch on a protein that regulates a variety of genes," says study coauthor Fred H. Gage of the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif.

While much of the RNA within a cell contains the recipes for proteins, many short RNA strands don't carry such codes. Some of these noncoding RNAs, called microRNAs, have been implicated in the growth and development of worms, flies, and more-complex animals (SN: 1/12/02, p. 24).

Gage studies how new nerve cells form, so he and his colleagues looked into whether noncoding RNAs influence unspecialized brain cells, or neural stem cells, isolated from adult rats. Gages team used chemicals to coax the cells in laboratory dishes into creating neurons instead of other types of brain cells and then harvested all the RNAs within the new neurons.

One small RNA stood out because it was double stranded. RNA typically is made up of a single strand of building blocks called nucleotides, while DNA consists of two entwined strands of nucleotides. …

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