Shakespeare in the Lab: Small RNA Molecules Take Leading Role in Brain Function

By Ed Moorhouse

Andrey Grigoriev

Andrey Grigoriev

A common supporting player in molecular biology could be taking on a leading role in brain function, according to research being done at Rutgers University–Camden.

The new finding shows that fragments of transfer RNA molecules are impacting changes occurring in brain activity with age, and that could lead to a better understanding of diseases like Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s.

“The main role — the textbook role — of transfer RNAs is very important. They are known to participate in converting genetic information,” says Andrey Grigoriev, a professor of biology at Rutgers–Camden. “But we’re now looking at them from a very different perspective.”

Grigoriev likens the new perspective from shifting points of view in a play.

“It’s very easy to give you an example from Shakespeare,” he explains. “If you think about some of his characters, there are minor ones somewhere in the background, like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Hamlet.”

“But there are other incarnations of those characters, like in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, in which they become central figures and take on a different function,” Grigoriev says. “In the film adaptation, for example, they nearly discover gravity or start inventing hamburgers.”

Such novel functionality adds a new layer to what scientists like Grigoriev already know about transfer RNAs and casts them in a different role when examining their connection to aging.

“What we found is that the transfer RNA molecules are being cut into pieces and are behaving very similarly to the microRNAs from our previous research,” Grigoriev explains.

Previous studies have shown that there is some change in the microRNA population with age. Grigoriev’s research — performed with a team from the University of Pennsylvania — proved that microRNA partitioning with protein complexes may be linked to neurodegeneration.

The same findings were made in regard to the transfer RNA molecules.

The new study, done entirely at Rutgers–Camden with three graduate students from Grigoriev’s lab, is taking a closer look at how transfer RNA molecules play a part in mammalian neurons, which could lead to advances in understanding regulatory processes in the human brain.

“It’s very hard to make a blanket statement on their effect on neurodegeneration, but there are enough similarities to give us reason to work on this further,” he says.

Grigoriev co-authored a paper on his findings with Spyros Karaiskos, a doctoral student studying computational and integrative biology at Rutgers–Camden, and Rutgers–Camden graduates Ammar Naqvi, a postdoctoral student at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and Karl Swanson, now a student at the Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine. The paper was published in the journal BiologyDirect earlier this year.

Grigoriev, a Medford resident, earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics from the Moscow Engineering Physics Institute in Russia. He received his doctoral degree in molecular biology from the Institute of Genetics and Selection of Industrial Microorganisms in Russia.

Posted in: Research Highlights

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