Chemical conundrum

Investigating how chemical tags on mRNA interact with regulatory proteins in flowering plants provides important insights into gene regulation with relevance for crop biotechnology and food production.
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Poppy flower on the verge of bursting open by rapid petal growth. Image credit: Laura Arribas-Hernández (CC BY 4.0)

Genes are strings of genetic code that contain instructions for producing a cell’s proteins. Active genes are copied from DNA into molecules called mRNAs, and mRNA molecules are subsequently translated to create new proteins. However, the number of proteins produced by a cell is not only limited by the number of mRNA molecules produced by copying DNA. Cells use a variety of methods to control the stability of mRNA molecules and their translation efficiency to regulate protein production. One of these methods involves adding a chemical tag, a methyl group, onto mRNA while it is being created. These methyl tags can then be used as docking stations by RNA-binding proteins that help regulate protein translation.

Most eukaryotic species – which include animals, plants and fungi – use the same system to add methyl tags to mRNA molecules. One methyl tag in particular, known as m6A, is a well-characterised docking site for a particular type of RNA-binding protein that goes by the name of ECT2 in plants. However, in the flowering plant Arabidopsis thaliana, ECT2 was thought to bind to an mRNA sequence different from the one normally carrying the chemical tag, creating obvious confusion about how the system works in plants.

Arribas-Hernández, Rennie et al. investigated this question using advanced large-scale biochemical techniques, and discovered that conventional m6A methyl tags are indeed used by ECT2 in Arabidopsis thaliana. The confusion likely arose because the sequence ECT2 was thought bind is often located in close proximity to the m6A tags, possibly acting as docking stations for proteins that can influence the ability of ECT2 to bind mRNA. Arribas-Hernández, Rennie et al. also uncovered additional mRNA sequences that directly interact with parts of ECT2 previously unknown to participate in mRNA binding.

These findings provide new insights into how chemical labels in mRNA control gene activity. They have broad implications that extend beyond plants into other eukaryotic species, including humans. Since this chemical labelling system has a major role in controlling plant growth, these findings could be leveraged in biotechnology applications to improve crop yields and enhance plant-based food production.