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Study finds genes that 'fine-tune' muscle development process

Scientists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have found two genes that are essential for the proper development of muscle.

Their findings are in the latest online edition of the journal Nature Genetics.

The genes are among a recently discovered group of genes known as microRNAs (miRNAs), which were first discovered in worms 12 years ago. Only in the past few years have they become recognized as essential gene regulators in many multicellular organisms, including humans.

"Our interest is in understanding, at the level of gene expression, how muscle cells develop," said Dr. Da-Zhi Wang, the senior and corresponding author of the study. Wang is an assistant professor of cell and developmental biology in the School of Medicine and a member of both the Carolina Cardiovascular Biology Center and the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.

"As microRNAs are gaining acceptance as global regulators of gene expression, we questioned whether they could be involved in the development of muscle," he said.

Muscle tissue is generated when myoblasts, or pre-muscle cells, stop proliferating and instead undergo irreversible changes (differentiation) that cause them to become myotubes, or mature muscle cells.

Wang's group studied two miRNAs miR-1 and miR-133 found exclusively in muscle cells. Because their genes are located so close to one another, miR-1 and miR-133 are always expressed together, yet they carry out opposing tasks.

"This is the first case that two miRNAs are co-expressed together but perform different functions," Wang said.

The two miRNAs described in the UNC study are instrumental in determining if myoblasts proliferate or differentiate. The research showed that increasing the amount of miR-1 caused myoblasts to differentiate into mature muscle cells, but prevented their proliferation. To the contrary, increasing the amount of miR-133 caused the myoblasts to proliferate even more, but prevented them from u
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Contact: Leslie H. Lang
llang@med.unc.edu
919-843-9687
University of North Carolina School of Medicine
29-Dec-2005


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