MicroRNAs - Tiny molecules shape up plants

This release is also available in German.

Since the DNA double helix was discovered 50 years ago, biologists have focused on the role of DNA in controlling gene activity. Only recently have scientists begun to appreciate the importance of microRNAs in keeping gene activity in check, a discovery that was hailed as the breakthrough of 2002 by Science magazine (Small RNAs make big splash, Vol. 298, page 2296). Just a year ago, several groups, including the one led by Carrington, discovered that plants are full of microRNAs. These tiny RNAs are in turn products of much larger RNAs. "Since plants that do not produce enough microRNAs were quite sick, we knew that we were onto something important, but we couldn't quite trace the exact cause for the many abnormalities we observed," said Carrington.

In their collaborative study, Weigel and Carrington now have pinpointed, for the first time, the precise interplay between a particular microRNA, called "Jaw", and its targets. "For several years, we had a mutant plant that overproduced a large RNA of unknown function. Surprisingly, this RNA did not seem to make a protein, like most other RNAs do. After we read Carringtons publications, we suddenly realized that this RNA was instead chopped up into microRNAs," said Weigel.

With DNA chips, scientists can measure all messenger RNAs in a plant at once. Using such DNA chips, Weigel and Carrington discovered that the Jaw microRNA specifically caused the coordinated destruction of several TCP messenger RNAs. The TCP genes prevent excess cell division in leaves. Without them, there is too much cell division and the leaves buckle instead of staying flat. This was exactly what the mutant plants with too much Jaw microRNA looked like. Next, the researchers changed the TCP genes so that their messenger RNAs could no longer be recognized by microRNAs. Plants harboring the altered TCP

Contact: Prof. Detlef Weigel
49-7071-601 - 1411

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