Sometimes the biggest discovery is what isn’t there.
“We were totally surprised that the U1 wasn’t there,” says UNBC Professor of Chemistry Dr. Stephen Rader. “U1 has always been found in other organisms.”
U1 is a specific type of small nuclear ribonucleic acid (RNA), which Rader and his team of researchers found wasn’t in red algae. The group was looking for new ways to study gene splicing.
“Red algae refers to the pigments in them, not the actual colour,” Rader says. “They are actually microscopic, a single cell.”
The genome for red algae was mapped by a Japanese team in 2004.
“We became aware of the work they had done,” Rader says, “and the fact they had only found 27 introns in the red algae.”
Introns are a segment of an RNA molecule which doesn’t have any of the code for proteins in it. The red algae number was, to put it mildly, quite low.
“Human genes have hundreds of thousands of introns. We thought, ‘This is really bizarre. Will the gene splicing mechanism be much simpler in them as well?’”
Because of the large number of introns and splices found in human genes, there is much higher likelihood of defects, which can lead to diseases such as cancer or cystic fibrosis.
Being able to study the gene-splicing mechanism in red algae, Rader and his team hoped, would be much simpler than using other RNA.
“It would be like if a Martian came to Earth and wanted to know how our machinery worked, he could start with an airplane engine or with a bicycle. The bicycle would be a lot easier to start with.”
At first, the UNBC researchers weren’t sure they were reading the data correctly when they couldn’t find the U1.
“It’s associated with certain proteins, so we looked for them, and found they were missing as well. That made us more confident of our findings.”
The team published its work to date in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science earlier this month, and are ready to take the next steps.
“So far, all we’re done is computational predictions,” Rader says, “Now we have to confirm the findings experimentally.”
They’ll do that by breaking open the algae and grab onto the RNA with molecular tools.
“It would be kind of like reaching into the back of a television, grabbing one of the components, and seeing what it’s connected to.
“The experiments so far have exactly confirmed the predictions.”
He’s also hoping their experimental work will answer another question that popped up when they made their discovery of something that wasn’t there.
“We’d like to know how the algae get by without the U1.”