Media Releases

U of T‑led study cracks universal RNA code, suggests a new cause for autism

July 10, 2013

TORONTO, ON — An inter­na­tion­al team led by Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to sci­en­tists Tim­o­thy Hugh­es and Quaid Mor­ris has unrav­eled most of a code that con­trols how DNA becomes the pro­teins that make up cells, a process called gene expres­sion and, in the process, uncov­ered a pos­si­ble cause of autism

The dis­cov­ery cracks the “RNA con­trol code,” which dic­tates how RNA — a fam­i­ly of mol­e­cules that medi­ates DNA expres­sion — moves genet­ic infor­ma­tion from DNA to cre­ate pro­teins.

“For the first time, we under­stand the lan­guage of a code that is essen­tial to gene pro­cess­ing,” said Quaid Mor­ris, a Pro­fes­sor in U of T’s Don­nel­ly Cen­tre for Cel­lu­lar and Bio­mol­e­c­u­lar Research and the Bant­i­ng and Best Depart­ment of Med­ical Research. “Many human dis­eases are due to defects in this code, so fig­ur­ing out what it means is cru­cial to cre­at­ing new treat­ments for many con­di­tions.”

The sci­en­tif­ic jour­nal Nature pub­lished the study results in its July 11, 2013 issue.

The researchers trans­lat­ed the code with a bio­chem­i­cal tech­nique devel­oped by a research sci­en­tist in Hugh­es’ lab, Debashish Ray, and a stu­dent in Morris’s lab, Hilal Kazan. The team defined the mean­ing of “words” in RNA, allow­ing iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of pat­terns in RNA mol­e­cules that pro­teins use to con­trol RNA pro­cess­ing and move­ment, which are often altered in dis­ease.

One pro­tein they looked at may explain some of the symp­toms in chil­dren with autism. The researchers found that RBFOX1, a pro­tein often turned off in the brains of patients, ensures the activ­i­ty of genes impor­tant for the func­tion of nerve cells in the brain.

“This was a sur­pris­ing find­ing, because we knew RBFOX1 con­trols gene expres­sion, but had no idea it also sta­bi­lizes RNA,” said Tim Hugh­es, a Pro­fes­sor in the Depart­ment of Mol­e­c­u­lar Genet­ics and the Don­nel­ly Cen­tre. “It’s a good exam­ple of the pre­dic­tive pow­er of the RNA con­trol code, which we think will real­ly open up the field of gene reg­u­la­tion.”

Hugh­es said the work also shows that the RNA con­trol code may be eas­i­er to inter­pret than a sim­i­lar con­trol code in DNA. Researchers have been strug­gling for years to under­stand this DNA con­trol code, but the new results sug­gest RNA con­trol could offer a more fruit­ful area of inquiry, with autism as just one exam­ple.

The team is now work­ing with autism experts to assess the poten­tial of RBFOX1 in autism ther­a­pies, and explor­ing promis­ing leads on the roles of unstud­ied pro­teins in many oth­er dis­eases.

The Cana­di­an Insti­tutes of Health Research and the U.S. Nation­al Insti­tutes of Health fund­ed the research, with trainees sup­port­ed by the Cana­di­an Insti­tute for Advanced Research, Nation­al Sci­ence and Engi­neer­ing Research Coun­cil of Cana­da, and the Human Fron­tier Sci­ence Pro­gram.


For more infor­ma­tion, con­tact:

Nicole Bod­nar
Media Rela­tions and Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Spe­cial­ist
Temer­ty Temer­ty Fac­ul­ty of Med­i­cine, Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to

Jim Old­field
Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Writer
Temer­ty Temer­ty Fac­ul­ty of Med­i­cine, Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to