What Is RNA Degradation?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Nancy Fann-Im
  • Last Modified Date: 03 September 2019
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RNA degradation is the destruction of some individual snippets and strands of RNA within a cell. This plays an important role in the regulation of cellular processes. At any given time, cells in an organism can contain variable amounts of RNA, and a sample of tissue can be subject to degradation in storage as well as in the body. When such samples are used for research and profiling, the degradation can become an issue.

Cells use RNA to signal the start and end of various processes. Cells produce much more RNA than they contain, which was the first sign to researchers that RNA degradation must be occurring inside the body, as the genetic material had to be going somewhere. The process has since been studied in a variety of organisms, particularly bacteria, as they are well suited to scientific research.

In RNA degradation, enzymes lock onto a strand and cleave it. This renders the message useless, as the base pairs have broken apart and do not create a complete chain of information any more. The enzymes responsible for breaking apart the RNA can also direct the cell to recycle the components so they can be used again to make more RNA or other compounds. At various points in a cell's life cycle, it may need more or fewer RNA signals to regulate various processes. RNA degradation allows cells to create what they need and discard it when they do not do this through self regulation.


Some strands of RNA have a very short lifetime while others may live longer because they are part of complex and ongoing processes. Researchers can look at different kinds of RNA complexes to learn more about how they function in the body and when they start to degrade. The process usually starts at one of the ends of the strand, much like unraveling a scarf. The enzymes responsible for cleaving the RNA can lock on to specific bases or pairs and start their work to chop the strand into shorter segments.

Like DNA, RNA carries a tremendous amount of information and acts as a signaler in the body. Not all the DNA and RNA in a cell are active at the same time, as this would create confusion and a jumble of events inside the cell; for example, a liver cell would also attempt to function as a skin cell, muscle cell, and so on, because all of the genes involved in cellular differentiation would be active. Each cell has a blueprint it uses to determine what kind of cell it will be and the types of functions it will perform, right down to the RNA degradation to get rid of RNA it no longer needs.


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