November 16, 2009

A Tale of a Microprocessor, RISC and a Few Loops of miRNA

The word ‘microprocessor’ is generally used to designate VLSI and SLSI (Very/Super Large Scale Integrated circuits) devices which accept, decode and execute instructions presented in binary coded forms. They may be called the heart of the computer. RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computer), on the other hand, is a type of microprocessor architecture that uses a simplified, yet highly-optimized set of instructions to deliver good performance. However, like ‘cell’ and ‘nucleus’, they too have been adopted in biology, and not without reason!

Proteins are essential for cells as they perform various functions as enzymes, ion channels, receptors and so on. They are manufactured in the ribosomes, organelles present in the cytoplasm, under the instruction of messenger RNA (mRNA). This instruction code is encoded in the sequence of nucleotides that make the mRNA molecule. However, the sequence of nucleotides in mRNA is dictated in turn by the DNA that is present in the nucleus. Messenger RNA carries this message from the nucleus into the protein production units. But what would happen if we interfered with the ‘message’?

RNA interference (RNAi) would occur affecting the regulation of gene expression. Micro RNAs (miRNA) are one of the small RNAs that regulate the expression of protein-encoding-genes, after the mRNA strand has formed. miRNAs have partly or fully complementary sequence to one or more mRNAs. This enables them to latch on to the mRNA molecule masking the ‘instruction codes’ in the mRNA strand, interfering with protein formation (translation). In other words, the gene has been silenced!

miRNAs are first transcribed from DNA by the enzyme RNA polymerase II into primary miRNA (pri-miRNA). Schematic diagram showing miRNA, dicer, exportin5 pathway and p bodies in miRNA biogenesispri miRNA is then cleaved by another enzyme, RNAse III, called Drosha, into precursor miRNA (pre miRNA) (see the picture on the left). However, Drosha (an RNAase III endonuclease) is assisted by Pasha (partner of Drosha), another enzyme, in this task. Later, it was found out that these two resided in a 500 kilo Dalton complex, called the microprocessor (micro RNA processor). So far, all these have been happening in the nucleus of the cell. The pre miRNA then moves into the cytoplasm through the exportin 5 pathway. Next, Dicer, another RNase III endonuclease, makes a mature miRNA duplex, which is then ‘uploaded’ into a complex called RISC (RNA induced silencing complex). RISC then prevents translation of the mRNA strand, as the ‘partially’ complementary miRNA strand interferes with the translation of the mRNA molecule into specified amino acid sequences can not occur. We can compare complementarity of nucleotide bases in terms of a pair of gloves and its corresponding fingers. The information of the gloves' coordinates gets obliterated by the occupying fingers. This RISC dependent mechanism occurs in parts of the cytoplasm, called P bodies (‘p’ for processing).

RNAi is very important for plants as they lack an immune system. Invading organisms can not dictate foreign protein formations as their RNAs are destroyed, not merely inhibited, as is usually seen in higher animals (animal miRNAs exhibit only imperfect homology to the mRNA in contrast to plants, and thus they only inhibit translation). Some of the tumor suppressor genes inhibit tumor formation by the action of miRNAs and not through protein formation. In humans, exploiting RNAi may be a useful tool in combating diseases such as cancer, AIDS etc. So it remains to be seen whether the microprocessor can bring a revolution in medicine and research as its counterpart in electronics did in the field of computing.

ResearchBlogging.orgLast modified: never
Reference: Saumet, A., & Lecellier, C. (2006). Anti-viral RNA silencing: do we look like plants ? Retrovirology, 3 (1) DOI: 10.1186/1742-4690-3-3
Processing of primary microRNAs by the Microprocessor complex. doi:10.1038/nature03049
The Macro World of MicroRNA (pdf)
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