Mathematicians may have solved a long-standing biological puzzle that had confounded molecular biologists – how protein production is regulated by microRNAs.
Until the 1990s, biologists believed the major role of RNA was to serve as a copy of a gene and template for producing proteins, however this changed when it was discovered that a myriad of RNA molecules are involved in regulating speeds of virtually all molecular mechanism in a cell.
Recent research has shown that practically any protein production can – and is – controlled by microRNAs, and biologists have described nine distinct mechanisms of action that all appear very different to one another.
“Different biological labs or slightly changed experimental conditions meant that results were different for investigators,” said Professor Alexander Gorban, Chair in Applied Mathematics at the University of Leicester.
“Quite dramatically, there has been a series of reports in top-ranked journals with contradictory results supporting one or another mechanism. Furthermore, researchers are puzzled by the fact that the same couple of protein and microRNA demonstrate different mechanisms of regulation in different biological labs or in slightly changed experimental conditions.”
Gorban and colleagues from the Institut Curie and CNRS developed a mathematical model which showed that there might be one simple mechanism which manifests itself differently in different conditions.
“Our model proposes that microRNA performs many actions simultaneously to the protein development, basically acting to get the job done in a stable and efficient way, given whatever conditions the experiment is occurring in,” said Gorban.
If accepted, Gorban said researchers will be able to take steps to determine the main mechanism of microRNA action, which should lead to a resolution of the debate.
“The discovery of miRNA and its regulatory role has completely changed our view of how genes in cells are controlled,” said Pat Heslop-Harrison, Professor of Cell Biology at Leicester. “The multifunctional model gives dynamic predictions of gene control; it can now be tested to understand significance of the various mechanisms coexisting under different conditions.”
The research will be published in the RNA Journal in September.