The Women of RNA: Two Award-Winners Share Why They Spent Their Careers Studying DNA's Lesser-Known Cousin
When Lynne Maquat, who leads the Center for RNA Biology at the University of Rochester, became interested in the ribonucleic acid molecule in the 1970s, she was definitely in the minority. The same was true for Joan Steitz, now professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale University, who began to study RNA a decade earlier in the 1960s.
"My first RNA experiment was a failure, because we didn't understand how things worked," Steitz recalls. In her first undergraduate experiment, she unwittingly used a lab preparation that destroyed the RNA. "Unknowingly, our preparation contained enzymes that degraded our RNA."
At the time, scientists pursuing genetic research tended to focus on DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid — and for good reason. It was clear that the enigmatic double-helix ribbon held the answers to organisms' heredity, genetic traits, development, growth and aging. If scientists could decipher the secrets of DNA and understand how its genetic instructions translate into the body's functions in health and disease, they could develop treatments for all kinds of diseases. On the contrary, the prevailing dogma of the time viewed RNA as merely a helper that passively carried out DNA's genetic instructions for protein-making — so it received much less attention.
But Maquat and Steitz weren't interested in heredity. They studied biochemistry and biophysics, so they wanted to understand how RNA functioned on the molecular level — how it carried instructions, catalyzed reactions, and helped build protein bonds, among other things.
"I'm a mechanistic biochemist, so I like to know how things happen," Maquat says. "Once you understand the mechanism, you can think of how to solve problems." And so the quest to understand how RNA does its job became the focus of both women's careers.
"People can now appreciate why some of us studied RNA for such a long time."
Half a century later, in 2021, their RNA work has earned two prestigious recognitions only months from each other. In February, they received the Wolf Prize in Medicine, followed by the Warren Alpert Foundation Prize in May, awarded to scientists whose achievements led to prevention, cure or treatments of human diseases.
It was the development of the COVID-19 vaccines that made RNA a household name. Made by Moderna and Pfizer, the vaccines use the RNA molecule to deliver genetic instructions for making SARS-CoV-2's characteristic spike protein in our cells. The presence of this foreign-looking protein triggers the immune system to attack and remember the pathogen. As the vaccines reached the finish line, RNA took center stage, and it was Maquat's and Steitz's research that helped reveal how these molecular cogwheels drive many biological functions within cells.
If you think of a cell as a kingdom, the DNA plays the role of a queen. Like a monarch in a palace, DNA nestles inside the cell's nucleus issuing instructions needed for the cell to function. But no queen can successfully govern without her court, her messengers, and her soldiers, as well as other players that make her kingdom work. That's what RNAs do — they act as the DNA's vassals. They carry instructions for protein assembly, catalyze reactions and supervise many other processes to make sure the cellular kingdom performs as it should.
There are a myriad of these RNA vassals in our cells, and each type has its own specific task. There are messenger RNAs that deliver genetic instructions for protein synthesis from DNA to ribosomes, the cells' protein-making factories. There are ribosomal RNAs that help stitch together amino acids to make proteins. There are transfer RNAs that can bring amino acids to this protein synthesis machine, keeping it going. Then there are circular RNAs that act as sponges, absorbing proteins to help regulate the activity of genes. And that's only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to RNA diversity, researchers say.
"We know what the most abundant and important RNAs are doing," says Steitz. "But there are thousands of different ones, and we still don't have a full knowledge of them."
Critical to RNA's proper functioning is a process called splicing, in which a precursor mRNA is transformed into mature, fully-functional mRNA — a phenomenon that Steitz's work helped elucidate. The splicing process, which takes place in cellular assembly lines, involves removing extra RNA sequences and stringing the remaining RNA pieces together. Steitz found that tiny RNA particles called snRNPs are crucial to this process. They act as handy helpers, finding and removing errant genetic material from the mRNA molecules.
A dysfunctional RNA assembly line leads to diseases, including many cancers. For instance, Steitz found that people with Lupus — an autoimmune disorder — have antibodies that mistakenly attack the little snRNP helpers. She also discovered that when snRNPs don't do their job properly, they can cause what scientists call mis-splicing, producing defective mRNAs.
Fortunately, cells have a built-in quality-control process that can spot and correct these mistakes, which is what Maquat studied in her work. In 1981, she discovered a molecular quality-control system that spots and destroys such incorrectly assembled mRNA. With the cryptic name "nonsense-mediated mRNA decay" or NMD, this process is vital to the health and wellbeing of a cellular kingdom in humans — because splicing mistakes happen far more often than one would imagine.
"We estimate that about a third of our mRNA are mistakes," Maquat says. "And nonsense-mediated mRNA decay cleans up these mistakes." When this quality-control system malfunctions, defective mRNA forge faulty proteins, which mess up the cellular machinery and cause disease, including various forms of cancer.
Scientists' newfound appreciation of RNA opens door to many novel treatments.
Now that the first RNA-based shots were approved, the same principle can be used for create vaccines for other diseases, the two RNA researchers say. Moreover, the molecule has an even greater potential — it can serve as a therapeutic target for other disorders. For example, Spinraza, a groundbreaking drug approved in 2016 for spinal muscular atrophy, uses small snippets of synthetic genetic material that bind to the RNA, helping fix splicing errors. "People can now appreciate why some of us studied RNA for such a long time," says Maquat.
Steitz is thrilled that the entire field of RNA research is enjoying the limelight. "I'm delighted because the prize is more of a recognition of the field than just our work," she says. "This is a more general acknowledgment of how basic research can have a remarkable impact on human health."
In 2014, the city of Flint, Michigan switched the residents' water supply to the Flint river, citing cheaper costs. However, due to improper filtering, lead contaminated this water, and according to the Associated Press, many of the city's residents soon reported health issues like hair loss and rashes. In 2015, a report found that children there had high levels of lead in their blood. The National Resource Defense Council recently discovered there could still be as many as twelve million lead pipes carrying water to homes across the U.S.
What if Flint residents and others in afflicted areas could simply flick water onto their phone screens and an app would tell them if they were about to drink contaminated water? This is what researchers at the University of Cambridge are working on to prevent catastrophes like what occurred in Flint, and to prepare for an uncertain future of scarcer resources.
Underneath the tough glass of our phone screen lies a transparent layer of electrodes. Because our bodies hold an electric charge, when our finger touches the screen, it disrupts the electric field created among the electrodes. This is how the screen can sense where a touch occurs. Cambridge scientists used this same idea to explore whether the screen could detect charges in water, too. Metals like arsenic and lead can appear in water in the form of ions, which are charged particles. When the ionic solution is placed on the screen's surface, the electrodes sense that charge like how they sense our finger.
Imagine a new generation of smartphones with a designated area of the screen responsible for detecting contamination—this is one of the possible futures the researchers propose.
The experiment measured charges in various electrolyte solutions on a touchscreen. The researchers found that a thin polymer layer between the electrodes and the sample solution helped pick up the charges.
"How can we get really close to the touch electrodes, and be better than a phone screen?" Horstmann, the lead scientist on the study, asked himself while designing the protective coating. "We found that when we put electrolytes directly on the electrodes, they were too close, even short-circuiting," he said. When they placed the polymer layer on top the electrodes, however, this short-circuiting did not occur. Horstmann speaks of the polymer layer as one of the key findings of the paper, as it allowed for optimum conductivity. The coating they designed was much thinner than what you'd see with a typical smartphone touchscreen, but because it's already so similar, he feels optimistic about the technology's practical applications in the real world.
While the Cambridge scientists were using touchscreens to measure water contamination, Dr. Baojun Wang, a synthetic biologist at the University of Edinburgh, along with his team, created a way to measure arsenic contamination in Bangladesh groundwater samples using what is called a cell-based biosensor. These biosensors use cornerstones of cellular activity like transcription and promoter sequences to detect the presence of metal ions in water. A promoter can be thought of as a "flag" that tells certain molecules where to begin copying genetic code. By hijacking this aspect of the cell's machinery and increasing the cell's sensing and signal processing ability, they were able to amplify the signal to detect tiny amounts of arsenic in the groundwater samples. All this was conducted in a 384-well plate, each well smaller than a pencil eraser.
They placed arsenic sensors with different sensitivities across part of the plate so it resembled a volume bar of increasing levels of arsenic, similar to diagnostics on a Fitbit or glucose monitor. The whole device is about the size of an iPhone, and can be scaled down to a much smaller size.
Dr. Wang says cell-based biosensors are bringing sensing technology closer to field applications, because their machinery uses inherent cellular activity. This makes them ideal for low-resource communities, and he expects his device to be affordable, portable, and easily stored for widespread use in households.
"It hasn't worked on actual phones yet, but I don't see any reason why it can't be an app," says Horstmann of their technology. Imagine a new generation of smartphones with a designated area of the screen responsible for detecting contamination—this is one of the possible futures the researchers propose. But industry collaborations will be crucial to making their advancements practical. The scientists anticipate that without collaborative efforts from the business sector, the public might have to wait ten years until this becomes something all our smartphones are capable of—but with the right partners, "it could go really quickly," says Dr. Elizabeth Hall, one of the authors on the touchscreen water contamination study.
"That's where the science ends and the business begins," Dr. Hall says. "There is a lot of interest coming through as a result of this paper. I think the people who make the investments and decisions are seeing that there might be something useful here."
As for Flint, according to The Detroit News, the city has entered the final stages in removing lead pipe infrastructure. It's difficult to imagine how many residents might fare better today if they'd had the technology that scientists are now creating.
Of all its tragedy, COVID-19 has increased demand for at-home testing methods, which has carried over to non-COVID-19-related devices. Various testing efforts are now in the public eye.
"I like that the public is watching these directions," says Horstmann. "I think there's a long way to go still, but it's exciting."
A natural material that looks and feels like real leather is taking the fashion world by storm. Scientists view mycelium—the vegetative part of a mushroom-producing fungus—as a planet-friendly alternative to animal hides and plastics.
Products crafted from this vegan leather are emerging, with others poised to hit the market soon. Among them are the Hermès Victoria bag, Lululemon's yoga accessories, Adidas' Stan Smith Mylo sneaker, and a Stella McCartney apparel collection.
The Adidas' Stan Smith Mylo concept sneaker, made in partnership with Bolt Threads, uses an alternative leather grown from mycelium; a commercial version is expected in the near future.
Hermès has held presales on the new bag, says Philip Ross, co-founder and chief technology officer of MycoWorks, a San Francisco Bay area firm whose materials constituted the design. By year-end, Ross expects several more clients to debut mycelium-based merchandise. With "comparable qualities to luxury leather," mycelium can be molded to engineer "all the different verticals within fashion," he says, particularly footwear and accessories.
More than a half-dozen trailblazers are fine-tuning mycelium to create next-generation leather materials, according to the Material Innovation Initiative, a nonprofit advocating for animal-free materials in the fashion, automotive, and home-goods industries. These high-performance products can supersede items derived from leather, silk, down, fur, wool, and exotic skins, says A. Sydney Gladman, the institute's chief scientific officer.
That's only the beginning of mycelium's untapped prowess. "We expect to see an uptick in commercial leather alternative applications for mycelium-based materials as companies refine their R&D [research and development] and scale up," Gladman says, adding that "technological innovation and untapped natural materials have the potential to transform the materials industry and solve the enormous environmental challenges it faces."
In fewer than 10 days in indoor agricultural farms, "we grow large slabs of mycelium that are many feet wide and long. We are not confined to the shape or geometry of an animal."
Reducing our carbon footprint becomes possible because mycelium can flourish in indoor farms, using agricultural waste as feedstock and emitting inherently low greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon dioxide is the primary greenhouse gas. "We often think that when plant tissues like wood rot, that they go from something to nothing," says Jonathan Schilling, professor of plant and microbial biology at the University of Minnesota and a member of MycoWorks' Scientific Advisory Board.
But that assumption doesn't hold true for all carbon in plant tissues. When the fungi dominating the decomposition of plants fulfill their function, they transform a large portion of carbon into fungal biomass, Schilling says. That, in turn, ends up in the soil, with mycelium forming a network underneath that traps the carbon.
Unlike the large amounts of fossil fuels needed to produce styrofoam, leather and plastic, less fuel-intensive processing is involved in creating similar materials with a fungal organism. While some fungi consist of a single cell, others are multicellular and develop as very fine threadlike structures. A mass of them collectively forms a "mycelium" that can be either loose and low density or tightly packed and high density. "When these fungi grow at extremely high density," Schilling explains, "they can take on the feel of a solid material such as styrofoam, leather or even plastic."
Tunable and supple in the cultivation process, mycelium is also reliably sturdy in composition. "We believe that mycelium has some unique attributes that differentiate it from plastic-based and animal-derived products," says Gavin McIntyre, who co-founded Ecovative Design, an upstate New York-based biomaterials company, in 2007 with the goal of displacing some environmentally burdensome materials and making "a meaningful impact on our planet."
After inventing a type of mushroom-based packaging for all sorts of goods, in 2013 the firm ventured into manufacturing mycelium that can be adapted for textiles, he says, because mushrooms are "nature's recycling system."
The company aims for its material—which is "so tough and tenacious" that it doesn't require any plastic add-on as reinforcement—to be generally accessible from a pricing standpoint and not confined to a luxury space. The cost, McIntyre says, would approach that of bovine leather, not the more upscale varieties of lamb and goat skins.
Already, production has taken off by leaps and bounds. In fewer than 10 days in indoor agricultural farms, "we grow large slabs of mycelium that are many feet wide and long," he says. "We are not confined to the shape or geometry of an animal," so there's a much lower scrap rate.
Decreasing the scrap rate is a major selling point. "Our customers can order the pieces to the way that they want them, and there is almost no waste in the processing," explains Ross of MycoWorks. "We can make ours thinner or thicker," depending on a client's specific needs. Growing materials locally also results in a reduction in transportation, shipping, and other supply chain costs, he says.
Yet another advantage to making things out of mycelium is its biodegradability at the end of an item's lifecycle. When a pair of old sneakers lands in a compost pile or landfill, it decomposes thanks to microbial processes that, once again, involve fungi. "It is cool to think that the same organism used to create a product can also be what recycles it, perhaps building something else useful in the same act," says biologist Schilling. That amounts to "more than a nice business model—it is a window into how sustainability works in nature."
A product can be called "sustainable" if it's biodegradable, leaves a minimal carbon footprint during production, and is also profitable, says Preeti Arya, an assistant professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City and faculty adviser to a student club of the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, products composed of petroleum-based polymers don't biodegrade—they break down into smaller pieces or even particles. These remnants pollute landfills, oceans, and rivers, contaminating edible fish and eventually contributing to the growth of benign and cancerous tumors in humans, Arya says.
Commending the steps a few designers have taken toward bringing more environmentally conscious merchandise to consumers, she says, "I'm glad that they took the initiative because others also will try to be part of this competition toward sustainability." And consumers will take notice. "The more people become aware, the more these brands will start acting on it."
A further shift toward mycelium-based products has the capability to reap tremendous environmental dividends, says Drew Endy, associate chair of bioengineering at Stanford University and president of the BioBricks Foundation, which focuses on biotechnology in the public interest.
The continued development of "leather surrogates on a scaled and sustainable basis will provide the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people, in perpetuity," Endy says. "Transitioning the production of leather goods from a process that involves the industrial-scale slaughter of vertebrate mammals to a process that instead uses renewable fungal-based manufacturing will be more just."