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Verh K Acad Geneeskd Belg. 1998;60(1):63-74.

RNA editing: trypanosomes rewrite the genetic code.


The understanding of how genetic information is stored and expressed has advanced considerably since the "central dogma" asserted that genetic information flows from the nucleotide sequence of DNA to that of messenger RNA (mRNA) which in turn specifies the amino acid sequence of a protein. It was found that genetic information can be stored as RNA (e.g. in RNA viruses) and can flow from RNA to DNA by reverse transcriptase enzyme activity. In addition, some genes contain introns, nucleotide sequences that are removed from their RNA (by RNA splicing) and thus are not represented in the resultant protein. Furthermore, alternative splicing was found to produce variant proteins from a single gene. More recently, the study of trypanosome parasites revealed an unexpected and indeed counter-intuitive genetic complexity. Genetic information for a single protein can be dispersed among several (DNA) genes in these organisms. One of these genes specifies an encrypted precursor mRNA that is converted to a functional mRNA by a process called RNA editing that inserts and deletes uridylate nucleotides. The sequence of the edited mRNA is specified by multiple small RNAs, named guide RNAs, (gRNAs) each of which is encoded in a separate gene. Thus, edited mRNA sequences are assembled from multiple genes by the transfer of information from one type of RNA to another. The existence of editing was surprising but has stimulated the discovery of other types of RNA editing. The Stuart laboratory has been exploring RNA editing in trypanosomes from the time of its discovery. They found dramatic differences between the mitochondrial gene sequences and those of the corresponding mRNAs, which indicated editing by the insertion and deletion of uridylates. Some editing was modest; simply eliminating shifts in sequence register of minimally extending the protein coding sequence. However, editing of many mRNAs was startingly extensive. The RNA sequence was essentially entirely remodeled with its sequence more the result of editing than the gene sequence. The identities of genes for such extensively edited RNA were not recognizable from the DNA sequence but they were readily identifiable from the edited mRNA sequence. Thus, despite the complex and extensive editing the resultant mRNA sequence is precise. Characterization of partially edited RNAs indicated that editing proceeds in the direction opposite to that used to specify the protein which reflects the use of the gRNAs. The numerous gRNAs that are used for editing are encoded in the DNA molecules whose role was previously a mystery. Using information gained in our earlier studies, the Stuart group developed an in vitro system that reproduces the fundamental process of editing in order to resolve the mechanism by which it occurs. They determined that editing entails a series of enzymatic steps rather than the mechanism used in RNA splicing. They also showed that chimeric gRNA-mRNA molecules are aberrant by-products of editing rather than intermediates in the process as had been proposed. Additional studies are exploring precisely how the number of added and deleted uridylates is specified by the gRNA. The Stuart laboratory showed that editing is performed by an aggregation of enzymes that catalyze the separate steps of editing. It also developed a method to purify this multimolecule complex that contains several, perhaps tens of, proteins. This will allow the study of its composition and the functions of its component parts. Indeed, the gene for one component has been identified and its detailed characterization begun. These studies are developing tools to explore related processes. An early finding in the lab was that the various mRNAs are differentially edited during the life cycle of the parasite. The pattern of this editing indicates that editing serves to regulate the alternation between two modes of energy generation. This regulation is coordinated with other events that are occurring during the life c

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