CHAPEL HILL - In 1998, researchers discovered to their surprise a long-hidden but common form of gene silencing called RNA interference. In that key biological process, double-stranded pieces of the genetic information known as RNA become potent brakes on gene activity.
RNA interference -- RNAi for short -- works in animal cells by degrading the messenger RNAs that serve as the mobile blueprints produced by genes.
Now, scientists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have discovered that RNAi itself can be exploited to rapidly identify parts of the machinery that make RNAi work. With further research, the finding might have important implications for treating cancer and other serious illnesses, they say.
We stumbled upon the finding, said Dr. Robert P. Goldstein, assistant professor of biology. A graduate student in my lab, Nate Dudley, found that what was considered an annoying peculiarity of RNAi became, in the end, a really useful way to figure out how it works.
A report on the discovery appeared online in the March 19 early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and will appear in the April 2 print issue. Dudley, Goldstein and biology postdoctoral fellow Jean-Claude Labbe carried out the research and wrote the paper.
The team conducted its experiments in one-millimeter-long worms that live in soil and eat bacteria. Scientists call the critter Caenorhabditis elegans.
The coolest thing about C. elegans is that it has all the major cell types that we have -- muscle, nerve, gut, skin and so on -- yet the whole worm contains only 959 cells, said Goldstein, a member of the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center at UNCs medical school. C. elegans is therefore one of the simplest organisms available for studying how genes function during development. Human beings, on the other hand, have trillions of cells.