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RNA Modification Plays Crucial Role in Brain Function, Scientists Find

Dec 12, 2016 06:06 AM EST
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A group of researchers found that a new way of regulating genes could play an important role in the activity of the whole nervous system.
(Photo : Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Researchers have found that RNA regulation -- a new way of regulating genes -- is vital for the activity of the nervous system.

A group of researchers from the Institute of Molecular Biology (MIB) and Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) in Germany discovered that chemical modification on RNA called m6A could affect brain function and is also important in influencing whether flies become either male or female.

In the study, which was published in the journal Nature, the scientists showed that high levels of the m6A RNA modification take place in the developing fly's nervous system and that it is important for the system to function, researchers said.

After disrupting the molecular pathway that modifies the RNA, the researchers found that the flies behaved abnormally. They could not fold their wings properly, lost sense of direction, and moved more slowly than flies with normal RNA modifications. The problems in movement resulted from an impaired function of the brain.

Moreover, the researchers also showed that the m6A modification is also important in fine-tuning sex determination, such as whether a fly develops as male or female.

"The discovery that RNA modifications are so abundant on messenger RNAs was not anticipated until a few years ago and to my view this is one of the most exciting discoveries in the field in the last 15 years," Dr. Jean-Yves Roignant, a group leader at IMB and corresponding author of the study, said in a press release.

"Our study now sheds light on what they do in living organisms. We show that the m6A modification plays an important role in the function of the nervous system and in sex determination in the fruit fly, Drosophila. As this modification is also enriched in the vertebrate nervous system, it is conceivable that it has similar roles in humans."

According to the researchers, genes need to be turned on or off in the right cells at the right times in order for bodies to function normally. It is already established that DNA modifications are important to regulate the activity of genes. These molecular marks on the DNA serve as signals to the cell machinery that converts the information contained within a gene into a protein, and help determine how a particular gene is regulated. These signals can be added or removed, changing whether genes are active or inactive.

While different modifications have also been identified on RNA, what they do in vivo is not well understood. The most prevalent of these RNA modifications is m6A, and scientists have demonstrated that it can be added and removed in an analogous way to DNA modifications.

According to Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News, the study is likely to prompt additional work in the emerging field of RNA modifications or epitranscriptomics.

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