Noncoding RNA Structure, Function, and Evolution

Type of Award: Spark
Date Awarded: January 2009
Award End Date: December 2010
Amount Awarded: $ 400,000.00
PI(s): Erik Sontheimer, PhD, NU; Alexander Mankin, PhD, UIC; Jonathan Staley, PhD, UChicago;

Abstract: Organisms depend on the proper and dynamic functioning of their genes, many of which encode proteins that carry out essential cellular tasks. Additionally, species depend on the evolution of genes to adapt and survive over time. Because inappropriate gene expression causes or contributes to many diseases, including cancer, the expression of genes into proteins must be controlled properly to maintain human health. Genes are comprised of DNA, and the first step of gene expression involves the production of an RNA copy of the gene's DNA sequence. In many cases the RNA is simply an intermediate that serves as a template for the production of a protein. In other instances, however, the RNA has its own biochemical function beyond the temporary transmission of genetic information, and such RNAs are known as noncoding RNAs (ncRNAs). RNA has increasingly been found to be as important as proteins in executing and regulating gene expression, and the number of known ncRNAs has skyrocketed. However, the boundaries of the ncRNA universe are not yet known, and the functions of most ncRNAs remain mysterious. To meet the challenges and exploit the opportunities of this exciting time in RNA research, we will capitalize on our existing strengths in this area by establishing a Center of Excellence for the investigation of the structure, function and evolution of ncRNAs. Specifically, we aim to discover new modes of ncRNA function, define novel ncRNA populations, explore their structures and interactions with other cellular components, and determine how ncRNA genes evolve. To catalyze these long-term goals, we will expand our capabilities in two areas central to ncRNA research: custom chemical synthesis and bioinformatics. Because ncRNAs are now known to impinge upon nearly all areas of biology, the establishment of an ncRNA research center will benefit the Chicago biomedical community as a whole.