New technology reveals how environmental changes affect RNA structure in living cells

By The Science Advisory Board staff writers

August 17, 2022 -- Researchers at the John Innes Centre in the U.K. have developed a new technology that is capable of profiling RNA structure at the resolution of a single molecule in live cells.

Writing in an August 17 article in the journal Nature, the researchers describe how using this technique allowed them to observe the impact of environmental conditions on the dynamic structures of RNAs in living cells.

In particular, the study revealed that in warm conditions Coolair RNA -- a set of alternatively processed antisense non-coding transcripts -- adopts three predominant structures and these shapes and proportions changed after plants were exposed to cold temperatures, while changes in RNA conformations in one hyper-variable region of Coolair changed Flowering Locus C (FLC) expression. By introducing mutations into the sequence of this RNA region, the researchers were able to alter the flowering time of the plants.

The authors of the study contend that their new technology could be applied to human cells where RNA structures could serve as a guide for designing RNA-based therapies, and they are looking to share the technology with RNA-based industrial or academic collaborators.

"Every RNA is likely to have its own RNA structure landscapes and conformational diversities. Our technology will allow us to explore the pervasive functional importance of RNA structures in the RNAs of interest such as SARS-COV-2," first author Pan Zhu, PhD, a postdoctoral scientist at the John Innes Centre, said in a statement.


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