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Thursday, May 13, 1999 Published at 18:52 GMT 19:52 UK


Clues to genetic blueprint

The molecular secrets of Rna

By BBC News Online Science Editor Dr David Whitehouse

A pioneering view of the internal structure of the bio-molecule RNA has been obtained by scientists at the Johns Hopkins University in the United States.

The discovery is important since RNA is central to the origin and workings of life.

"I've been travelling around the last few weeks giving talks about what we've discovered," said Chemistry professor David Draper, out of whose lab the work originated, "and people's jaws just drop to the floor."

[ image: Professor David Draper]
Professor David Draper
"So little is known about how RNA's fit together and what kinds of structural features keep it intact. Well, now we can actually see it in 3-D, living colour."

RNA is the molecule that carries the genetic blueprint, read from DNA molecules, to structures called ribosomes. The ribosomes use this information to construct proteins which are the basic building blocks of cells.

In addition RNA assists the ribosomes by acting as a catalyst.

RNA is a complicated molecule that has for years defied efforts to capture its image except for the simplest features. Because of this, scientists have had only a primitive understanding of it.

However, by binding a particularly stable kind of protein called L11 to RNA scientists have created an RNA-protein complex that is robust enough to be analysed.

The new protein was crystallised and X-rays passed through it. The so-called diffraction pattern made by the X-rays as they leave the crystal contains information that allows the structure of the RNA to be determined.

The research is published in the journal Science.

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