'Junk DNA' can sense viral infection

April 24, 2012

Once considered unimportant "junk DNA," scientists have learned that non-coding RNA (ncRNA) — RNA molecules that do not translate into proteins — play a crucial role in cellular function. Mutations in ncRNA are associated with a number of conditions, such as cancer, autism, and Alzheimer's disease.

Now, through the use of "deep sequencing," a technology used to sequence the genetic materials of the human genome, Dr. Noam Shomron of Tel Aviv University's Sackler Faculty of Medicine has discovered that when infected with a virus, ncRNA gives off biological signals that indicate the presence of an infectious agent, known as a pathogen. Not only does this finding give researchers a more complete picture of the interactions between and the body, but it provides scientists with a new avenue for fighting off infections.

His findings have been published in the journal Nucleic Acid Research.

Another battleground between pathogen and host

"If we see that the number of particular molecules increases during a specific viral infection, we can develop treatments to stop or slow their proliferation," explains Dr. Shomron.

In the lab, the researchers conducted a blind study in which some cells were infected with the HIV virus and others were left uninfected. Using the deep sequencer, which can read tens of millions of sequences per experiment, they analyzed the ncRNA to discover if the infection could be detected in non-coding DNA materials. The researchers were able to identify with 100% accuracy both infected and non-infected cells — all because the ncRNA was giving off significant signals, explains Dr. Shomron.

These signals, which can include either the increase or decrease of specific ncRNA molecules within a cell, most likely have biological significance, he says. "With the introduction of a pathogen, there is a reaction in both the coding and non-coding genes. By adding a new layer of information about pathogen and host interactions, we better understand the entire picture. And understanding the reactions of the ncRNA following infection by different viruses can open up the battle against all pathogens."

Finding an "Achilles heel" of infections

The researchers believe that if an ncRNA molecule significantly manifests itself during infection by a particular pathogen, the pathogen has co-opted this ncRNA to help the pathogen devastate the host — such as the human body. To help the body fight off the , drugs that stop or slow the molecules' proliferation could be a novel and effective strategy.

This new finding allows researchers to develop treatments that attack a virus from two different directions at once, targeting both the coding and non-coding genetic materials, says Dr. Shomron. He suggests that ncRNA could prove to be the "Achilles heel" of pathogens.

Dr. Shomron and his team of researchers developed new software, called RandA, which stands for "ncRNA Read-and-Analyze," that performs ncRNA profiling and analysis on data generated through deep sequencing technology. It's this software that has helped them to uncover the features that characterize virus-infected cells.

Explore further: Non-coding RNA relocates genes when it's time to go to work

Related Stories

Non-coding RNA relocates genes when it's time to go to work

November 10, 2011
Cells develop and thrive by turning genes on and off as needed in a precise pattern, a process known as regulated gene transcription. In a paper published in the Nov. 9 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers at ...

Recommended for you

Want to win at sports? Take a cue from these mighty mice

July 20, 2017
As student athletes hit training fields this summer to gain the competitive edge, a new study shows how the experiences of a tiny mouse can put them on the path to winning.

'Smart' robot technology could give stroke rehab a boost

July 19, 2017
Scientists say they have developed a "smart" robotic harness that might make it easier for people to learn to walk again after a stroke or spinal cord injury.

Engineered liver tissue expands after transplant

July 19, 2017
Many diseases, including cirrhosis and hepatitis, can lead to liver failure. More than 17,000 Americans suffering from these diseases are now waiting for liver transplants, but significantly fewer livers are available.

Lunatic Fringe gene plays key role in the renewable brain

July 19, 2017
The discovery that the brain can generate new cells - about 700 new neurons each day - has triggered investigations to uncover how this process is regulated. Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine and Jan and Dan Duncan ...

New animal models for hepatitis C could pave the way for a vaccine

July 19, 2017
They say that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. In the case of hepatitis C—a disease that affects nearly 71 million people worldwide, causing cirrhosis and liver cancer if left untreated—it might be worth ...

Omega-3 fatty acids fight inflammation via cannabinoids

July 18, 2017
Chemical compounds called cannabinoids are found in marijuana and also are produced naturally in the body from omega-3 fatty acids. A well-known cannabinoid in marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol, is responsible for some of its ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

JRDarby
not rated yet Apr 24, 2012
When will we finally abandon the misnomer "junk DNA?"

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.