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RNA Play a Vital Role in Gene Activity

Useless pieces of RNA - a molecule originally considered only a lowly messenger for DNA - play an important role in letting cells know where they are in the body and what they are supposed to become, researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine have discovered.

The finding implies that ancient RNA molecules can orchestrate gene activity across vast portions of the human genome - a cell's genetic blueprint. It also suggests they may be important in cancer development and stem cell maintenance. Overall, the work adds another brick to the growing wall of evidence suggesting that RNA is more than a mere genomic servant.

RNA is best known for ferrying protein-coding instructions from DNA, once thought to be the master molecule of the genome, to the cell's assembly factories. But cracks in this theory began to appear when it became evident that many RNA molecules aren't capable of making protein.

While more recent research has shown that small bits of RNA can silence individual genes by interfering with their expression - a la Stanford professor Andrew Fire's recent Nobel work - longer pieces, called non-coding RNAs, have been more perplexing.

"These ncRNAs have long been molecules of mystery," said John Rinn, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar in the laboratory of Howard Chang, MD, PhD, assistant professor of dermatology. "They look just like they should code for proteins, but they don't."

Although ncRNAs have been shown to affect the expression of neighboring genes, the relative abundance of the molecules - accounting for about half of the DNA transcribed in the cell - suggests that they may have a wider sphere of influence than previously thought. Now Rinn, Chang, and their collaborators have discovered that ncRNAs can influence gene expression patterns at distant locations in the cell.

"We were surprised to find that at least one of these molecules can suppress genes on a completely di
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