Unlike messenger RNA, which is transcribed from the DNA in genes and guides the production of proteins, lncRNA molecules do not carry the blueprints for proteins. Because of this fact, they were long thought to not influence a cell’s fate or actions.
Nonetheless, lncRNAs also are transcribed from DNA in the same way as messenger RNA, and they, too, consist of unique sequences of nucleic acid building blocks.
Evidence indicates that lncRNAs can tether structural proteins to the DNA-containing chromosomes, and in so doing indirectly affect gene activation and cellular physiology without altering the genetic code. In other words, within the cell, lncRNA molecules act “epigenetically” — beyond genes — not through changes in DNA.
The brain cells that the scientists focused on the most give rise to various cell types of the central nervous system. They are found in a region of the brain called the subventricular zone, which directly overlies the striatum. This is the part of the brain where neurons are destroyed in Huntington’s disease, a condition triggered by a single genetic defect.
UCSF researcher Ramos combined several advanced techniques for sequencing and analyzing DNA and RNA to identify where certain chemical changes happen to the chromosomes, and to identify lncRNAs on specific cell types found within the central nervous system. The research revealed roughly 2,000 such molecules that had not previously been described, out of about 9,000 thought to exist in mammals ranging from mice to humans.
In fact, the researchers generated far too much data to explore on their own. The UCSF scientists created a website through which their data can be used by others who want to study the role of lncRNAs in development and disease.
“There’s enough here for several labs to work on,” said Ramos, who has training grants from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) and the NIH.
“It should be of interest to scientists who study long noncoding RNA, the generation of new nerve cells in the adult brain, neural stem cells and brain development, and embryonic stem cells,” he said.