New research suggests that molecules called “RNA chaperones” play a much larger role in the cell than previously thought.
It’s already known that these chaperones can encourage strands of genetic information to fold properly. Now, researchers at the Clinical Sciences Centre in West London are the first to actually demonstrate this. They found that just like a real-world chaperone, these cellular chaperones protect the cell by masking the harmful effects of damage to its DNA.
All body tissue, such as hair, skin, and muscle, is made of proteins. Proteins are produced inside the body’s cells, following instructions found in our genes. But to make a protein, the information within a gene must first be turned into a small messenger molecule called RNA.
To transmit the information they carry, RNA molecules often fold into specific shapes. When the original DNA is damaged, this corrupted information can be passed on and the resulting RNA strand may not fold correctly. Ultimately, this can interfere with protein production.
“Some mutations can cause the RNA to get stuck in a badly folded shape”, says Tobias Warnecke, who is head of the CSC’s Molecular Systems research group, and who led the research in collaboration with scientists in France and Croatia. “Some RNA chaperones can pick apart poorly folded RNAs and give them another chance to get the folding right. We wanted to know if boosting the production of chaperones can reduce the harmful consequences of these mutations.”
To find out, the researchers looked at strains of E. coli bacteria known to be saddled with a number of damaging mutations. When the scientists increased the number of chaperones within the bacteria, the strains grew much better and proved more robust than those with normal levels of chaperones.
“The RNA chaperones do not repair the DNA damage, but they allow the cell to tolerate that damage better. You might say they mask the harmful effects of these mutations”, says Warnecke. As a consequence, mutated genes can be passed on through the generations. The research results have been published in the journal eLife. Warnecke now plans to find out more about the role that chaperones play in evolution.
The work may have broader application in biotechnology. Researchers are trying to tweak proteins and RNAs to create new medicines, biofuels, washing powders and more. In the laboratory they can stimulate proteins to change and evolve, then select the ones that display novel properties. Chaperones may allow scientists to stimulate the proteins to evolve faster and in many different ways. Using this chaperone effect may be a way to produce a bank of proteins more quickly and reliably.
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