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Minuscule molecules pack a powerful punch

A role for a microRNA in the immune system has been shown by study of one of the worlds first microRNA knockout mouse, reported Friday 27 April in Science. The microRNA acts as a lynchpin to balance the response of immune defences and the researchers suggest the corresponding human gene will have a similar vital role.

Cells of the immune system in the knockout mice do not work as well as normal cells and the mice develop symptoms similar to those of human autoimmune disease. They are also less able to resist infection by bacteria, such as Salmonella. The team suggest that the equivalent human microRNA will play a major role in the human immune system.

MicroRNAs are copied from DNA but do not contain code for protein. Rather, they are themselves active in controlling the activity of other genes, often by inducing destruction of protein-coding messenger RNAs or by preventing their activity in the cell.

The research team, led by the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, targeted a gene called Bic/microRNA-155 (or miR-155) in embryonic stem cells which they used to transfer the mutation into mice. Previous research showed that miR-155 was active in cells of the immune system and overactivity was found in lymphoma development.

"Very little is known about the function of the hundreds of microRNA genes," said Dr Antony Rodriguez, lead author on the paper from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. "Although plentiful, this class of gene had never before been knocked out in mice, the best model for human disease.

"But we simply did not know whether microRNA knockouts would have an effect in mice: previous knockout studies in nematode worms suggested that most microRNAs were not essential. Our findings were dramatically different."

The effects of the miR-155 knockout swept across the immune system. The team showed that, although knockout of miR-155 did not appear to affect normal growth and development of cells in the
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Contact: Don Powell
don@sanger.ac.uk
44-012-234-94956
Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute
26-Apr-2007


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