RNA project to create language for scientists worldwide

BOWLING GREEN, O.—Research into ribonucleic acids (RNA)—the building blocks of life—is exploding as scientists worldwide discover the roles of RNA in genetics, health, disease and the development of organisms. The rapidly growing body of knowledge has created the need for researchers to develop a shared vocabulary and system for describing, cataloging and comparing their findings.

An international team of RNA scientists, known as the RNA Ontology Consortium, has now been formed to do just that.

“The consortium will develop a common vocabulary and scientific concepts relating RNA structure and function to allow RNA scientists worldwide to communicate with one another as well as to integrate different kinds of information they obtain about RNA molecules,” explained Dr. Neocles Leontis, a Bowling Green State University chemistry professor chosen by the RNA Society to head the consortium.

“This,” he added, “will make it easier to turn molecular information into useful knowledge that can help us to understand how different cells grow and develop as they do. This knowledge is key to curing hereditary diseases.”

The National Science Foundation is providing $500,000 for the five-year project as one of its Research Coordination Networks, whose goals are to “encourage and foster interaction among scientists” and to facilitate “innovative ideas for implementing novel networking strategies.”

As principal investigator, Leontis will serve as coordinator of the consortium, which includes scientists from the United States, Great Britain, France, Canada and Australia. Participating are leading researchers from Stanford, Duke, Yale, Rutgers and Georgia Tech universities, the University of California-Berkeley, the University of North Carolina, the University of Rochester, the University of Montréal, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the Institut de Biologie Moléculaire et Cellulaire in France, and the Scripps Research Institute.

Creating the RNA Ontology will require incorporating the methods and vocabularies of chemists, molecular biologists, genomicists, information scientists and structural biologists. To help sort out the difficult conceptual issues, the consortium will organize frequent face-to-face meetings of RNA scientists. Members will also report their progress at the annual RNA Society meetings and receive feedback from the wider community of researchers.

The ontology team will identify all RNA motifs, or repeated patterns, mentioned in the literature or appearing in databases, to agree upon and write a definition for each motif. The consortium’s work will be accessible on the Web to the various RNA research communities using servers hosted at BGSU.

Some researchers focus on the sequences of RNA molecules, while others study their 3-dimensional structures. A major focus of the project will be to integrate the databases of RNA sequences and 3D structure.

Leontis has experience in both areas. An affiliate of the BGSU Center for Biomolecular Sciences and the Northwest Ohio Bioinformatics Consortium, he is known internationally for his work on RNA structural bioinformatics--the field of science in which biology, computer science and information technology merge. Methods he has developed for analyzing and classifying RNA structures have been adopted internationally to advance RNA structure prediction and simulation and RNA sequence analysis. His work is supported by the National Institutes for Health and the American Chemical Society.

Leontis describes RNA molecules as “the software controlling how the genes are expressed to make proteins.” They are unique in being able to store and transmit information as well as process that information.

The continuous discovery of new RNA molecules with novel biological functions is beginning to show that RNA plays far more roles than originally believed. For instance, while genomicists had previously determined that humans and chimpanzees share 99 percent of the same protein genes, it has now been discovered in the past two years that so do mice.

“The hardware (proteins) for mice and humans is practically the same–but clearly mice and humans are different. Since the hardware is the same, the difference between mice and humans must be at the software level—which determines how the hardware is used. We are beginning to see that RNA is that software,” Leontis said.

The possible applications of newly generated knowledge about RNA are vast. RNA science already is playing an important role in understanding normal and abnormal metabolism and physiology and in designing new strategies for intervention in the form of gene therapy, Leontis said.

(Posted March 21, 2005 )