Intact DNA strands can be found in fossils, while scientists sometimes struggle to keep RNA intact under laboratory conditions. The structural variations between RNA and DNA underlie the differences in their stability and longevity. Because DNA is double-stranded, it is inherently more stable. The single-stranded structure of RNA is less stable but also more flexible and can form weak internal bonds. Additionally, most RNAs in the cell are relatively short, while DNA can be up to 250 million nucleotides long. RNA has a hydroxyl group on the second carbon of the ribose sugar, increasing the likelihood of breakage of the sugar-phosphate backbone.
The cell can exploit the instability of RNA, regulating both its longevity and availability. More stable mRNAs will be available for translation for a longer period of time than less stable mRNAs transcripts. RNA binding proteins (RBPs) in cells play a key role in the regulation of RNA stability. RBPs can bind to a specific sequence (AUUUA) in the 3’ untranslated region (UTR) of mRNAs. Interestingly, the number of AUUUA repeats appears to recruit RBPs in a specific way: fewer repeats recruit stabilizing RBPs. Several, overlapping repeats result in the binding of destabilizing RBPs. All cells have enzymes called RNases that break down RNAs. Typically, the 5’cap and polyA tail protect eukaryotic mRNA from degradation until the cell no longer needs the transcript.
The emerging research on epitranscriptomics aims to define regulatory mRNA modifications. Recently, scientists have discovered an important role for methylation in mRNA stability. The methylation of adenosine residues (m6A) appears to increase mRNA translation and degradation. m6A also has roles in stress responses, nuclear export, and mRNA maturation. The presence of a modified uracil residue, pseudouridine, also appears to play an important role in RNA regulation.
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