I have family in town, which means I have a chance to practice science communication! We visited my lab to see my bench, water baths, centrifuges of various sizes, and gel rigs. I also presented my two posters (pro-tip: if you go to two conferences in one summer, life is easier if you present the same project twice… ). In the process, I tried to explain gene regulation and why we need RNA. Here’s an edited version of my spiel.
Our genomes are a large instruction manual that tell how to make a body. That manual is very bulky and needs to be kept safe, so it’s stored in a special part of the cell, called the nucleus, which is separate from the rest, almost as if it’s a castle surrounded by a moat, kept safe from intruders.
That instruction manual has the directions for making proteins, which are the things that do everything. The machinery for making the proteins, however, are on the other side of the moat. The genome needs a messenger to travel and make the correct proteins. In comes the RNA!
Using a messenger doesn’t just protect the genome though. It also gives the cell control over what proteins are made when. That’s because the messenger doesn’t copy all the DNA. It specifically copies the parts that make the proteins that cell needs. Your eyes are copying instructions for light sensing proteins while your immune system cells copy instructions for disease-fighting proteins. The number of copies made can be regulated, which then influences how many proteins are made.
I study what happens to those RNA copies once they’re made. I want to know how well they cross the moat, if they’re quickly destroyed, and how they interact with the protein-making machinery. All those events determine how much protein is made from each message.