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What is RNA Interference?

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  • Written By: Michael Anissimov
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 09 November 2016
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RNA interference is a natural genetic mechanism present in most plants and animals. Its function is to protect the cellular machinery from invasion and exploitation by viruses and other foreign genetic material. RNA interference can silence specific genes, making it a valuable research tool in biotechnology research and even next-generation medical therapies. For instance, if we could use RNA interference to silence the genes responsible for a slow metabolism, we could allow people to lose weight without forcing them to go on a diet or fighting against their natural dietary tendencies.

Recall that viruses reproduce by inserting their genetic material into the genome of a host, reprogramming it to pump out copies of the virus. After a few hundred viruses are produced by the genetic machinery of the cell, it bursts, releasing more virions which go on to infect other cells. The main point of RNA interference is to suppress certain sections of the genome so that viruses cannot exploit it to produce copies.

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Most organisms have a genome that produces messenger RNA which goes on to instruct the cell’s protein-producing machinery to create various proteins. RNA interference consists of special segments of RNA, called small interfering RNA strands (siRNA) which have nucleotide sequences complementary to the targeted RNA strand. These complementary strands serve as a targeting mechanism which guides proteins to the mRNA of choice, dicing the long double-stranded RNA molecules into fragments which cannot be translated into proteins. In this way, specific genes can be silenced.

Today, the use of RNA interference for biotechnological and therapeutic purposes is a hot research area. RNA interference used to selectively suppress desired genes is a form of genetic engineering. Imagine curing or making progress towards a cure for AIDS, hepatitis, and the flu – all through selectively suppressing the expression of viral genomes. Fully utilizing RNA interference, we might be able to create cotton seeds without poison — they possess great amounts of protein but natural cotton seeds are poisonous — tobacco without carcinogens, and plants with extreme resistance to crop-destroying viruses. RNA interference is a valuable method in the biotechnological toolbox which will continue ushering in the biotech revolution for the 21st century.

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