When a gene is active, its DNA sequence is ‘transcribed’ to form a molecule of RNA. Many of these RNAs act as templates for making proteins. But for some genes, the protein molecules are not their final destinations. Their RNA molecules instead help to control gene activity, which can alter the behaviour or the identity of a cell. For example, experiments performed in individual cells suggest that so-called long non-coding RNAs (or lncRNAs for short) guide how stem cells develop into different types of mature cells. However, it is not clear whether lncRNAs play the same critical role in embryos.
Yen et al. used embryonic stem cells to model how motor neurons develop in the spinal cord of mouse embryos. This revealed that motor neurons produce large amounts of a specific group of lncRNAs, particularly one called Meg3. Further experiments showed that motor neurons in mouse embryos that lack Meg3 do not correctly silence a set of genes called the Hox genes, which are crucial for laying out the body plans of many different animal embryos. These neurons also incorrectly continue to express genes that are normally active in an early phase of the stem-like cells that make motor neurons.
There is wide interest in how lncRNAs help to regulate embryonic development. With this new knowledge of how Meg3 regulates the activity of Hox genes in motor neurons, research could now be directed toward investigating whether lncRNAs help other tissues to develop in a similar way.