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RNA ‘sponges’ mop up sequences that curb gene expression.
Behold the latest curio in the cabinet of RNA oddities: naturally occurring circular RNA molecules that influence gene expression.
At least some of the loops, described in two papers published this week by Nature1, 2, act as molecular ‘sponges’, binding to and blocking tiny gene modulators called microRNAs. But the researchers suspect that the circular RNAs have many other functions. The molecules comprise “a hidden, parallel universe” of unexplored RNAs, says Nikolaus Rajewsky, the lead author of one of the studies and a systems biologist at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin.
The discovery is yet another a reminder that RNA is much more than a mundane messenger between DNA and the proteins it encodes. The past two decades have seen the discovery of a host of nonconformist RNAs. Some were unexpectedly short or surprisingly long, and some flouted orthodoxy by blocking other RNA strands from being translated into protein. But almost all were linear. The few accounts of circular RNAs in plants and animals were generally dismissed as genetic accidents or experimental artefacts, says Erik Sontheimer, a molecular biologist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.