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10 years of the RNA Network: Bio researchers take stock of successes

(Vienna, 8 Feb. 2011) For ten years scientists at Max F. Perutz Laboratories have carried out research as part of the Austrian Science Fund (FWF)-funded special research programme "Modulators of RNA. Fate and Function". The exemplary cooperation between universities has really borne fruit.

The most exciting themes of molecular biology include the study of ribonucleic acid (RNA) as a controlling and regulating element for a number of cell processes. For ten years scientists at Max F. Perutz Laboratories (MFPL) at the Medical University of Vienna and the University of Vienna have carried out research as part of the FWF-funded special research programme "Modulators of RNA. Fate and Function", and the exemplary cooperation between universities has really borne fruit. The scientists have seen highly successful results and therefore made Vienna an international hotspot for RNA research.

In the last few years the FWF has invested around ten million euros in the special research programme (SFB) "Modulators of RNA. Fate and Function". The scientific success is demonstrated by 130 publications, twelve international cooperation projects and five patents. "The SFB has played a key role in enhancing the field of research of RNA biology at the Vienna Biocenter," says Udo Bläsi, spokesman for the SFB and Professor of Molecular Microbiology at the University of Vienna. Renée Schroeder, deputy spokeswoman and Professor of RNA Biochemistry at the same location, explains: "There has been a huge amount done in this field. The most surprising result of our work was the incredible number of regulatory RNAs and their many different functions which we have been able to identify in the last few years."

More than the "little brother of DNA"
Ribonucleic acid (RNA) is very similar to DNA – the carrier of our genetic information. For a long time it was considered only as a "working copy" in the production of proteins. Only when the research was carried out in recent years did it become apparent that RNA, in the form of many different non-coding RNAs, is involved in a host of cellular processes as a controlling and regulating element.

Temperature sensors and "chaperones"
Regulatory RNAs control the production of proteins in the cell depending on the environmental conditions. Like a sensor control unit they ensure, for example, that different proteins are formed at higher temperatures than at low ones. The RNAs therefore enable living beings to react to environmental conditions and to adapt. The main area the researchers focused on was the interaction between proteins and the RNA. The so-called RNA chaperones in particular were at the centre of their investigations. Chaperones are proteins which "help" the RNA molecules fold properly. The correct folding of the RNA molecules is decisive for how they function; because of their size and complexity they often tend to fold "incorrectly". Here the chaperones help them find their way back to the right path – hence the name chaperone".

Top-level research and promoting young talents
A total of 13 research groups were involved in the FWF special research programme – eleven at MFPL and one each at the Institute of Molecular Pathology and the Research Centre for Molecular Medicine at the Academy of Sciences. There was also a lot of progress in the training of young researchers: the SFB produced a total of 45 diploma students, 50 doctoral students, two university lecturers and two new professorships. It also paved the way for the doctoral programme in "RNA Biology", which was established in 2007 as the first focused PhD programme at MFPL under the supervision of Andrea Barta, a professor at the Division of Molecular Biology at MedUni Vienna.

Broad field for future research
Outstanding new scientists have been attracted to the Vienna Biocenter because of the excellent quality of the research. Together with already established groups they will continue carrying out research on the versatile molecules from the spring of 2011 as part of the SFB "RNA regulation of the transcriptome", recently approved by the FWF and headed by Renée Schröder. She explains: "If the research of the last ten years has shown us one thing, it is that there are still a lot of unresolved questions with regulatory RNAs!"

» Max F. Perutz Laboratories
Max F. Perutz Laboratories, founded in 2005, are a joint venture of the University of Vienna and the Medical University of Vienna at the Campus Vienna Biocenter. More than 60 working groups carry out research in the field of molecular biology at MFPL. Since 2007 the biochemist Graham Warren has been the head of the institute.