Posted October 16, 2007

NIH grant explores novel roles for RNA in gene expression

Double-stranded RNA
Image courtesy Allen Nicholson
Double-stranded RNA, which plays a key role in host cell defense against viral infection, is being investigated by Biology and Chemistry Professor Allen Nicholson for its role in gene expression and regulation.

Allen Nicholson, professor in the departments of Biology and Chemistry, has received a four-year, $1.1 million continuation grant from the NIH Institute of General Medical Sciences to continue his research into the role of RNA in gene expression and regulation.

“Over the past decade, there has been a very large increase in the amount of research focusing on the role of RNA in gene expression and gene regulation,” said Nicholson, who is collaborating with a protein and RNA crystallography group at the National Cancer Institute. “What we have been investigating is the role of double-stranded RNA in this gene regulation.”

Nicholson said that double-stranded RNA plays a key role in host cell defense against viral infection, and has been explored as a potential cancer therapy. Nicholson and his collaborators are focusing on a group of enzymes called ribonuclease III that recognizes specific structural and sequence features in double-stranded RNA, and then chops it into shorter pieces.


“We want to understand this very specific recognition process; why it is targeting certain double-stranded RNAs,” he said. “If the enzyme were to recognize and cut a different RNA within the cell, it could cause the cell to die.”

Nicholson said the ultimate goal of the research is to understand how cutting of double-stranded RNA by ribonuclease III family members impacts host cell defense against viral infections, and how this process also might be recruited to fight other cellular disease states, including cancer.

“There is evidence for altered RNA metabolism in cancer cells, compared to normal cells, and one avenue of research is investigating how double-stranded RNA may be involved in cancer cell growth and development,” he added.