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RNA Interference and Gene Silencing: History and Overview

Caenorhabditis elegans. Seven years ago, researchers Guo and Kemphues were attempting to use antisense RNA to shut down expression of the par-1 gene in order to assess its function. As expected, injection of the antisense RNA disrupted expression of par-1, but quizzically, injection of the sense-strand control did too (9).

This result was a puzzle until three years later. It was then that Fire and Mello first injected dsRNA a mixture of both sense and antisense strands into C. elegans (10). This injection resulted in much more efficient silencing than injection of either the sense or the antisense strands alone. Indeed, injection of just a few molecules of dsRNA per cell was sufficient to completely silence the homologous gene's expression. Furthermore, injection of dsRNA into the gut of the worm caused gene silencing not only throughout the worm, but also in its first generation offspring (10).

The potency of RNAi inspired Fire and Timmons to try feeding nematodes bacteria that had been engineered to express dsRNA homologous to the C. elegans unc-22 gene. Surprisingly, these worms developed an unc-22 null-like phenotype (11-13). Further work showed that soaking worms in dsRNA was also able to induce silencing (14). These strategies, whereby large numbers of nematodes are exposed to dsRNA, have enabled large-scale screens to select for RNAi-defective C. elegans mutants and have led to large numbers of gene knockout studies within this organism (15-18).

RNAi in Drosophila
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