[Researcher of the Month] RNA Discovery Brings Light to Curing Cancer and Brain Disease
Professor Nam Jin-wu (Department of Life Science)
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Professor Nam Jin-wu (Department of Life Science) may have discovered a key ingredient to diagnosing and curing brain disease and cancer in his research published on September 13th in Nature Communications. Nam’s research has brought light to a phenomenon regarding messenger Ribonucleic acids (RNA), a type of polymeric molecule essential in various biological roles that transfers information from the genome (genetic material of an organism) into proteins by translation (the process in which ribosomes in the cytoplasm synthesize proteins after the process of transcription of DNA to RNA in the cell's nucleus).
Nam was the first to discover that microRNAs (small non-coding RNA molecules) and UPF1s (regulator of nonsense transcripts 1) interact with each other and conduct “post-transcriptional or translational regulation” within cells, which can bring deeper understanding to the fundamentals of gene manifestation within cells. MicroRNAs contain around 22 nucleotides (basic building blocks of DNA) found in plants, animals and some viruses, that function in RNA silencing, which prevents the expression of a certain gene, and post-transcriptional regulation of gene expression. UPF1 is a protein that in humans is encoded by the UPF1 gene and is known to be an important factor needed to selectively recognize incorrectly generated RNAs within cells and degrade them.
There are many ways to regulate the process of making protein from DNA genes within cells in the human body. Nam compared this process to switching on lights in a classroom, with the switch being a modulator of protein manifestation, and the actual turning on and off, signifying whether proteins were created. However, cells are much smarter than we think, so instead of a binary state of zero and one that signifies whether proteins were created or not, cells can actually regulate protein in a more precise way as they can have a continuous value between the two numbers. “It is like using a sensor that corrects the light’s brightness according to how bright it is outside, instead of simply turning the classroom light on and off or maintaining a degree of brightness,” said Nam. “In order to do this, genes go through the steps of DNA to messenger RNA to protein.” According to internal and external conditions of cells, the degree of protein manifestation is regulated by “transcriptional regulation,” a transferring process that creates RNA from DNA, and “post-transcriptional or translational regulation,” which regulates the process of creating protein from RNA.
Nam said his research started during a lunch with Professor Hwang Jung-wook (Department of Genetics), who was at the time conducting a research on RNA quality control. The two talked about gene manifestation regulation research and questioned why UPF1 dependent decay appeared in messenger RNAs. Nam and Hwang soon created a theory and joined hands to test their theory using various data open to the public for around one year. Most of Nam’s research relied on data-driven science, which uses statistical and computational verification using dozens of terabytes of data. Programs, algorithms and pipelines (a set of data processing elements connected in series) were created to analyze and interpret the data. Then, various experiments and samples were used to develop his research. A total of some four years and six months had passed until Nam published his research.
"Data biology’s biggest attraction is its systematic approach to research," said Nam. With the newly discovered gene control regulation principle, Nam believes that it could be used to diagnose and treat various diseases, and can also be used to develop treatment platforms.
Jung Myung-suk email@example.com
Photos by Kim Ju-eun
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