Non-coding RNAs: a paradigm shift in biology

The genomics era launched an eye-opener to biologists, because it became clear that the number of protein-coding genes in humans, nematodes, flies, and plants is on the same order of magnitude. What, other than protein-coding genes, could contribute to biological complexity?

Part of the answer may be attributed to the fact that alternative splicing of exons to generate multiple protein species from single genes is used to varying degrees between distinct organisms. It is clear that complexity arises largely from regulatory networks, and that RNAs that do not encode proteins, non-coding (nc) RNAs, play major roles in these networks.

These findings represent a paradigm shift in molecular biology that was, until recently, entirely focused on proteins and protein-coding genes. Therefore, much excitement is aroused by the discovery and characterization of ubiquitously present ncRNAs. They promise to explain how their interplay with conventional transcriptional control can greatly increase regulatory complexity and also inform us on how disease can ensue when such control mechanisms fail. Indeed, the study of human disease-associated ncRNAs provides novel approaches to the development of diagnostics and treatments.

The Nordic countries harbour internationally recognised academic research groups as well as biotech companies whose interests centre on ncRNA. This researcher network consists of 14 academic groups and one company from Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Germany. The network includes expertise on many different aspects of ncRNA research, and brings together scientists whose main experimental approaches and model organisms are diverse.

Knowledge derived from seemingly disparate model organisms has been extremely fruitful for conceptual advances in this field. This network will be a forum for initiation of new joint research projects at the forefront of genetics aided by shared access to state-of-the-art research infrastructure. It will also provide optimal opportunities for cross-fertilization of fundamental and applied research on ncRNA and will be a dynamic platform for training of junior researchers and PhD students to ensure that the Nordic countries continue to develop as a European locomotive for research on ncRNA.

Facts about the project
Project leader

Torben Heick Jensen, Aarhus University, Denmark