RNA Interference

Historical Overview and Significance
Part of the Methods in Molecular Biology book series (MIMB, volume 265)


In the early 1990s, attempts to manipulate gene expression by researchers working in three different fields resulted in unanticipated gene silencing. Rather than ignoring such results, these researchers went on to document and further investigate the nature of such silencing, which was named “co-suppression” in plants, “quelling” in fungi, and “RNA interference” (RNAi) in nematodes. By the late 1990s, it was discovered that silencing could be initiated in this diverse set of organisms by exposing cells to double-stranded RNA (dsRNA), which directed the destruction of mRNAs containing similar sequences. Soon afterward, such dsRNA-mediated silencing was employed as a reverse genetic technique to analyze the functions of specific genes in a broad variety of organisms. Biochemical and genetic studies designed to uncover the components of the RNA silencing machinery identified a common core of proteins that serve to amplify the interfering RNA signal and direct endonucleolytic cleavage of target RNAs. A subset of silencing events may also direct DNA methylation of targeted genes. RNA silencing is thought to have evolved as a defense mechanism to suppress viral replication and transposon mobilization. However, additional functions involving the RNAi machinery have been uncovered, including posttranscriptional regulation of endogenous genes, and maintenance of structure and function of heterochromatin. Whereas many researchers have focused on understanding the natural biological functions of RNA silencing, others are testing its utility in antiviral and cancer therapies and in other biotechnological and biomedical applications.

Key Words

RNA silencing RNA interference cosuppression quelling posttranscriptional gene silencing antisense RNA double-stranded RNA dicer RNA-induced silencing complex RNA-directed RNA polymerase 


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Copyright information

© Humana Press Inc. 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Biology DepartmentMacalester CollegeSt Paul

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