For the very first time, a study led by Julian Chen and his group in Arizona State University’s School of Molecular Sciences and the Biodesign Institute’s Center for the Mechanism of Evolution, has discovered an unprecedented pathway producing telomerase RNA from a protein-coding messenger RNA (mRNA).

The central dogma of molecular biology specifies the order in which genetic information is transferred from DNA to make proteins. Messenger RNA molecules carry the genetic information from the DNA in the nucleus of the cell to the cytoplasm where the proteins are made. Messenger RNA acts as the messenger to build proteins.

“Actually, there are many RNAs (ribonucleic acids) that are not used to make proteins,” explained Chen. “About 70 percent of the human genome is used to make noncoding RNAs that don’t code for protein sequences but have other uses.”

Telomerase RNA is one of the noncoding RNAs that assembles along with telomerase proteins to form the enzyme telomerase. Telomerase is crucial for cellular immortality in cancer and stem cells. In this study, Chen’s group shows that a fungal telomerase RNA is processed from a protein-coding mRNA, instead of being synthesized independently.

“Our finding from this paper is paradigm-shifting. Most RNA molecules are synthesized independently and here we uncovered a dual function mRNA that can be used to produce a protein or to make a noncoding telomerase RNA, which is really unique,” said Chen. “We will need to do a lot more research to understand the underlying mechanism of such an unusual RNA biogenesis pathway.”

Basic research on the metabolism and regulation of mRNA has led to important medical applications. For example, several COVID-19 vaccines use messenger RNA as a means to produce viral spike proteins. In these vaccines, the mRNA molecules are eventually degraded and then absorbed by our bodies.

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