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Scientists have been working for more than a decade to understand how tiny molecules called microRNA regulate genes within cells. Now researchers have discovered that microRNA actually moves between cells to help them communicate with each other and ultimately determine the types of cells that grow and develop.

This discovery has broad implications in a wide range of fields, including medical gene therapy and bioengineering of crop plants. The discovery could be especially useful in the production of biofuels, where being able to control the types of cells that develop could yield more useable plant matter.

The research – conducted at the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research (BTI) in collaboration with Duke University and the Universities of Helsinki and Uppsala – was published online in the journal Nature on April 21.

The discovery of this molecular pathway represents the first time researchers have demonstrated that microRNA – small ribonucleic acid molecules that function to turn off genes in an organism – move between cells as a regulatory signal.

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