RNA Biology Comes into Focus

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

There are many ways to categorize the research performed at the NIH Intramural Research Program: biomedical or behavioral; computational, basic, translational, or clinical; excellent or outstanding; wow or double-wow; and so on. When we launched the irp.nih.gov website, we utilized the concept of scientific focus areas, or SFAs, and identified 21 such SFAs at the IRP, from biomedical engineering & biophysics to virology.

A hairpin loop from a pre-mRNA with its bases (light green) and backbone (sky blue). NMR structure of the central region of the human GluR-B R/G pre-mRNA, from the Protein Data Bank ID 1YSV. Credit: Vossman

These SFAs are useful in providing both intramural researchers and our external scientific colleagues with a snapshot of who at the NIH is doing what. Indeed, this was a major reason for creating the IRP website in the first place. We asked our principal investigators (PIs) to identify with up to five SFAs on their IRP profile pages so that we could sort and list the NIH PIs in any given SFA for all to see.

We thought the 21 SFAs did a rather nice job of summing up all the diverse science in the IRP. Then along comes RNA biology. It's not as if the field is new; some 30 Nobel Prizes have been won involving RNA over the decades. But the field has had a renaissance in recent years with discoveries such as that of noncoding RNA (ncRNA) functioning in genome defense and chromosome inactivation. Newly revealed classes of RNAs and their remarkable functions are poised to revolutionize molecular biology, with profound implications for clinical sciences.

So, seeing how we have numerous RNA biologists on IRP campuses, we decided this summer to create a new SFA for the topic. Key areas of IRP research in this field include the elucidation of RNA biogenesis pathways, the determination of RNA structures, the identification of functions for the various classes of RNAs and RNA modification, the establishment of the role of RNA in disease, and the exploration of RNA-based and RNA-targeted therapies.

Of course, when we first set up the IRP website, RNA wasn’t an SFA option. The RNA folks inevitably chose SFAs such as genetics or chromosome biology. But many more will identify with RNA biology as they become aware of the new option, and I'm hoping to build a vibrantly visible RNA community.

You can see all the SFAs at https://irp.nih.gov/our-research/scientific-focus-areas and our growing list of self-identifying RNA biologists at https://irp.nih.gov/our-research/principal-investigators/focus/rna-biology.

Category: Science