“What physics was to the 20th century, biology will be to the 21st—and RNA will be a vital part of it.”

새롭게 밝혀진 RNA의 중요성에 관련된 기사.

실제로 이것이 생물학계에서 “뜨는” 이슈인지에 대해 자세히 아는 내용이 있으면 커멘트 바랍니다.


The RNA revolution | Biology’s Big Bang

Jun 14th 2007
From The Economist print edition

– What physics was to the 20th century, biology will be to the 21st—and RNA will be a vital part of it

NATURE is full of surprises. When atoms were first proved to exist (and that was a mere century ago), they were thought to be made only of electrons and protons. That explained a lot, but it did not quite square with other observations. Then, in 1932, James Chadwick discovered the neutron. Suddenly everything made sense—so much sense that it took only another 13 years to build an atomic bomb.

It is probably no exaggeration to say that biology is now undergoing its “neutron moment”. For more than half a century the fundamental story of living things has been a tale of the interplay between genes, in the form of DNA, and proteins, which the genes encode and which do the donkey work of keeping living organisms living. The past couple of years, however, have seen the rise and rise of a third type of molecule, called RNA.

The analogy is not perfect. Unlike the neutron, RNA has been known about for a long time. Until the past couple of years, however, its role had seemed restricted to fetching and carrying for DNA and proteins. Now RNA looks every bit as important as those two masters. It may, indeed, be the main regulator of what goes on in a cell—the cell’s operating system, to draw a computing analogy—as well as the author of many other activities (see article). As important, molecular biologists have gone from thinking that they know roughly what is going on in their subject to suddenly realising that they have barely a clue.

That might sound a step backwards; in fact, it is how science works. The analogy with physics is deeper than just that between RNA and the neutron. There is in biology at the moment a sense of barely contained expectations reminiscent of the physical sciences at the beginning of the 20th century. It is a feeling of advancing into the unknown, and that where this advance will lead is both exciting and mysterious.

As Samuel Goldwyn so wisely advised, never make predictions—especially about the future. But here is one: the analogy between 20th-century physics and 21st-century biology will continue, for both good and ill.

Physics gave two things to the 20th century. The most obvious gift was power over nature. That power was not always benign, as the atomic bomb showed. But if the 20th century was distinguished by anything from its predecessors, that distinctive feature was physical technology, from motor cars and aeroplanes to computers and the internet.

It is too early to be sure if the distinguishing feature of the 21st century will be biological technology, but there is a good chance that it will be. Simple genetic engineering is now routine; indeed, the first patent application for an artificial living organism has recently been filed. Both the idea of such an organism and the idea that someone might own the rights to it would have been science fiction even a decade ago. And it is not merely that such things are now possible. The other driving force of technological change—necessity—is also there. Many of the big problems facing humanity are biological, or are susceptible to biological intervention. The question of how to deal with an ageing population is one example. Climate change, too, is intimately bound up with biology since it is the result of carbon dioxide going into the air faster than plants can remove it. And the risk of a new, lethal infection suddenly becoming pandemic as a result of modern transport links is as biological as it gets. Even the fact that such an infection might itself be the result of synthetic biology only emphasises the biological nature of future risks.

At the moment, policymakers have inadequate technological tools to deal with these questions. But it is not hard to imagine such tools. Ageing is directly biological. It probably cannot be stopped, but knowing how cells work—really knowing—will allow the process to be transformed for the better. At least part of the answer to climate change is fuel that grows, rather than fuel that is dug up. Only biotechnology can create that. And infections, pandemic or otherwise, are best dealt with by vaccines, which take a long time to develop. If cells were truly understood, that process might speed up to the point where the vaccine was ready in time to do something useful.

But physics gave the 20th century a more subtle boon than mere power. It also brought an understanding of the vastness of the universe and humanity’s insignificant place in it. It allowed people, in William Blake’s phrase, to hold infinity in the palm of a hand, and eternity in an hour.
Know thyself

Biology, though, does more than describe humanity’s place in the universe. It describes humanity itself. And here, surprisingly, the rise of RNA may be an important part of that description. Ever since the human-genome project was completed, it has puzzled biologists that animals, be they worms, flies or people, all seem to have about the same number of genes for proteins—around 20,000. Yet flies are more complex than worms, and people are more complex than either. Traditional genes are thus not as important as proponents of human nature had suspected nor as proponents of nurture had feared. Instead, the solution to the puzzle seems to lie in the RNA operating system of the cells. This gets bigger with each advance in complexity. And it is noticeably different in a human from that in the brain of a chimpanzee.

If RNA is controlling the complexity of the whole organism, that suggests the operating system of each cell is not only running the cell in question, but is linking up with those of the other cells when a creature is developing. To push the analogy, organs such as the brain are the result of a biological internet. If that is right, the search for the essence of humanity has been looking in the wrong genetic direction.

Of course, such results are speculative and primitive. But that is the point. Lord Rutherford, who proved that atoms exist, knew nothing of neutrons. Chadwick knew nothing of quarks, let alone supersymmetry. Modern biologists are equally ignorant. But eventually, the truth will out.

4 Responses to “The RNA Revolution”  

  1. 1 chiang

    어디서 많이 본 글이다 했더니 이코노미스트였구나 ㅎㅎ

    생물과도 아니고 별로 아는 바가 없어서 뭐라 하긴 힘들지만
    의과학 쪽에서 RNA를 이용한 연구가 활발하다는 얘기는 들어본 것 같다..

    ..아님 말고 -_-

  2. 2 Taedong Yun

    오 너도 이코노미스트를 보는구나
    혹시 이코노미스트 온라인 유료 아이디 같은거 있으면 공유좀;

  3. 3 Minryung

    얼마전에 iRNA를 이용한 알츠하이머인가 파킨슨 병의 치료병이 나왔어. science였든가, nature 였든가;;;

    몸안에 특정 단백질이 발현되기 전에 mRNA로 DNA가 전사된다는 건 알고 있지? 그런데 이 mRNA에 상보적인 RNA(interference RNA)를 넣어서 해당 단백질의 발현을 막을 수 있어. 어떤 물질이 머릿속에서 발현되는데 이것이 뉴런을 괴사시키는 원인이 된다면 그 물질에 대한 iRNA를 투여해서 괴사를 억제 및 완화시킬 수 있겠지.
    (반대로 부족한 물질의 발현은 mRNA를 넣음으로써 유도할 수도 있겠지? 아마? )

    뇌 안의 특정 단백질과만 결합하는 부분을 가진 단백질에다가 양의 전하를 가지는 단백질을 붙였어. 그러면 RNA는 음전하가 강하기 때문에 여기 붙거든. 이렇게 3가지 물질로 구성된 복합제를 혈관에 투입하면 대부분이 머릿속으로 들어가므로, 엉뚱한 데 iRNA가 가서 생기는 부작용을 줄일 수 있어.

    나도 논문을 읽은 건 아니고 nature news같은데서 핵심만 요약해둔 걸 읽은 거라 이정도 밖에 모르겠당~

    세정이가 랩에서 RNA연구 하니까 잘 알 거야.

  4. 4 Taedong Yun

    아항 저기 링크되어 있는 기사에서 RNA interference어쩌구 하는게 그런 거였군요…

    살짜쿵 이해가 됐어요. 감사감사~

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