Scientists have been working for more than a decade to understand how tiny molecules called microRNA regulate genes within cells. Now researchers have discovered that microRNA actually moves between cells to help them communicate with each other and ultimately determine the types of cells that grow and develop.
This discovery has broad implications in a wide range of fields, including medical gene therapy and bioengineering of crop plants. The discovery could be especially useful in the production of biofuels, where being able to control the types of cells that develop could yield more useable plant matter.
The research conducted at the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research (BTI) in collaboration with Duke University and the Universities of Helsinki and Uppsala was published online in the journal Nature on April 21.
The discovery of this molecular pathway represents the first time researchers have demonstrated that microRNA small ribonucleic acid molecules that function to turn off genes in an organism move between cells as a regulatory signal.
"Many organisms are made up of multiple types of cells, and we do not yet fully understand how these cells are put in the right places, although we believe cells communicate with each other ," said Ji-Young Lee, assistant scientist at BTI and a lead author of the article. "This is the first time anyone has clearly demonstrated cells are communicating through the movement of microRNA. It's likely that this kind of communication process is generally happening in many cell types in many organisms."
The researchers conducted the study in the root of Arabidopsis, a small flowering plant related to cabbage, where they took a closer look at the development of two types of root cells protoxylem and metaxylem. These are key cells responsible for the transport of water and mineral nutrients in most terrestrial plants. Their goal was to determine the molecular pathway that leads to the
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Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research