UCR scientists discover a novel adaptive antiviral defense mechanism in animals

Scientists at the University of California, Riverside have grabbed the cover of the May 17 issue of Science with research about "RNA silencing," a novel adaptive antiviral defense in the animal kingdom. Shou-Wei Ding, assistant professor of plant pathology, discovered that when animal cells are attacked by a virus, the cells use RNA silencing to protect themselves from the virus. The discovery could lead to new gene therapies and vaccine designs.

RNA or ribonucleic acid is similar to a single strand of DNA or deoxyribonucleic acid (two strands of DNA typically make up a cell's chromosome), but with a small chemical difference in the structure of the chemical units called nucleotides. Some viruses use RNA as their chromosomes, but a universal role for RNA is as the messenger RNA (mRNA), to convert the genetic information in DNA into functional proteins.

RNA silencing was first discovered in transgenic plants in 1990 and only recently in animals, where it is also known as 'RNA interference.' RNA silencing regulates gene expression by a specific degradation of its mRNA and, after its initial triggering, the RNA silencing mechanism has 'memory', knowing which RNA to destroy, by virtue of the sequence of the four building blocks (nucleotides) of RNA.

"In our experiments, we infected fruit fly cells with an RNA virus," said Ding. "This triggered strong silencing of the viral RNAs in the fly cells. We further demonstrate that the same virus also directs expression of a protein that suppresses RNA silencing in the fly cells, thus ensuring successful infections."

It is well known that in plants, RNA silencing serves as an antiviral defense. Ding and two postdoctoral researchers working in his laboratory show for the first time that animal cells have used RNA silencing to defend against viral infections. Because the animal viral suppressor identified also blocks RNA silencing in plants, their results provide the first experimental eviden

Contact: Iqbal Pittalwala
University of California - Riverside

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