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High fidelity keeps human DNA assembly line humming

Scientists at Michigan State University have made a major discovery on the inner workings of genetic coding, mapping out mechanisms of one of life's most elemental functions: RNA synthesis. Their work has crucial implications for how a normal cell forms a tumor and how a virus runs amok.

The work is published in the May 13 edition of the scientific journal Molecular Cell.

Behind the basic research is a story that melds exquisite nanotechnology in living systems and cutting-edge biochemistry and molecular biology with a system of checks and balances.

"RNA synthesis is at the hub of human genetic control. It's important for understanding cancers, viral infections and normal human development," said Zachary Burton, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology. "If you want to understand and control things like viral infections and tumors this fundamental process has to be understood in every detail. This is basic science, but basic science with practical application."

Burton and his team study how RNA is made from a DNA template. DNA is the genetic material that holds the blueprint for life. DNA dictates orders to RNA to make proteins, which give a cell its identity. Mistakes in RNA synthesis can lead to cancer or can support the life cycle of an invading virus. Researchers consider control of RNA synthesis to be a huge issue in human health. It is also the foundation of how living systems function.

In the world of molecular biology, much attention has been given to how RNA is made. Burton explains that it is similar to an industrial assembly line, with DNA being a conveyer belt to load building blocks, or bases, called nucleoside triphosphates (NTPs) to hook up with a growing strand of RNA.

Burton's insight was to discover that the NTP bases preload to the DNA template several steps before they are added to the growing RNA chain.

This idea contradicts the prevalent view of how RNA and NTP bases hook up. Preload
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Source:Michigan State University


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