December 7 – Getting the message

Today’s factismal: Your cells contain about five times as much RNA as DNA.

In the world of biology, DNA is king. It carries the genetic code that helps determine the difference between a man and a mouse.It determines what protein will be made and when. And DNA may even determine how long your cells (and therefore you) live by the length of the telomeres that make up the end of a DNA strand. But no kingdom can be run by the king alone, and the cell is no different. If DNA is the king, then RNA is the royal messenger.

Like DNA, RNA is made up of nucleic acids. But unlike DNA which is famously double-stranded, RNA is just a single strand copied from sections of DNA. But what a strand it is! Some types of RNA transport amino acids in the cell and get them ready for use; these are called, logically enough, transport RNA or tRNA. Other types of RNA assemble the amino acids into proteins; because they are found in the ribosome (a sort of cellular protein factory), they are call ribosomal RNA or rRNA. And other RNA carries instructions on how to assemble those protiens; because it is the messenger of the cell, it is call messenger RNA or mRNA.

As you might guess, all of those different types of RNA add up to be quite a lot of information floating around in your cells. Where DNA accounts for about 1% of a cell’s weight, RNA makes up nearly 5%! But that bulk comes with a price; where the DNA is permanent, the RNA is constantly being built up, used, and then broken down into its parts to be used again.

But perhaps the most amazing thing about RNA is how little we know of how it functions. We only know a few thousand out of the several million different viable configurations of RNA; that lack of knowledge is what keeps us from developing a cure for the common cold (which is transmitted by the RNA of a virus) or curing some forms of cancer. Of course, where there’s a gap there’s a research project. And this one is called EteRNA. In this game-based project, you’ll build different RNA strands which will then undergo computer simulation to see if they are viable. And every week, the most viable ones will actually be synthesized to see if our prediction of how they work is right! If you’d like to get into the game, then head on over to:
http://eterna.cmu.edu/web/

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