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Genes and proteins can’t explain everything

Andreas Wachter has been the head of the Emmy Noether research group at the Centre for Plant Molecular Biology (ZMBP) at the University of Tübingen since 2009. Of particular interest to Wachter are the molecular regulation mechanisms in key biological processes. He is the first person to transfer the latest insights from bacteria research to plant cells and stresses the importance of ribonucleic acid (RNA) in these vital processes.

Wachter is studying the role of RNA in a classical mechanism, known as the splicing process, in which certain segments are excised from the RNA molecules and the information condensed. It was previously assumed that the complex and vital task of regulating the splicing can only be done by special proteins. Wachter questions this classical interpretation: “It would be a very elegant solution if the RNA were able to directly influence the splicing process, without involving proteins.” During his post-doctoral period, Wachter investigated the process of alternative splicing in the research group led by Ronald Breaker at the renowned Yale University in Connecticut, USA, a world leader in the field of RNA switches.

RNA switches are also found in plants


Wachter is one of the first researchers to transfer the splicing mechanism, which was initially elucidated in bacteria, to higher organisms in order to investigate this mechanism in plant cells. He has already been able to describe two new classes of RNA switches. "The role of RNA in the life processes in cells has, for a long time, been completely underestimated! It can be safely assumed that RNA directly governs many more processes than was hitherto believed."

Wachter acquired the methods needed to investigate the complex structures while he was in the USA and is now able to use them in Tübingen. He attaches great importance to working in collaboration with other research groups at the Centre for Plant Molecular Biology (ZMBP) and the neighbouring Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology.

Many researchers regard RNA only as a necessary intermediary step in the translation of genetic information from nuclear DNA into proteins which fulfil all vital functions in the cell. For a long time it has been assumed that RNA does not have more than a matrix function, in particular as it seems quite primitive compared to the highly complex and specialised structures of cellular proteins. RNA is a single strand consisting of a long sequence of four nucleotide units. 

Wachter not only looks at the RNA's one-dimensional sequence of nucleotides, but also focuses on its two- and three-dimensional structure. The alleged disadvantage of RNA becomes an advantage when looking at its two- and three-dimensional structure. In contrast to the DNA double helix, RNA consists of only one strand, which now turns out to be a huge advantage: the formation of spatial structures can be achieved far more easily with a single strand structure. The folding of RNA considerably increases the possibilities of interacting with other molecules and with itself.

The folding of RNA into three-dimensional structures enables the efficient regulation of many assembly and degradation processes in cells. RNA does not have to wait for proteins, but is able to regulate these processes by folding specifically and control different reactions in the cell through different structures. Wachter has a prediction for the future: "Previous research has shown the huge potential of RNA in many cellular processes. I am sure that this potential is exploited in all organisms far more effectively than previously assumed."

Development of antibiotics

Intensive research is being carried out around the world to find out more about the influence of the RNA structure on the regulation of cellular processes. Current research has not only led to a basic understanding of biological processes, but also to the recognition of the huge potential for the development of new antibiotics: The researchers expect that a mechanism that is able to efficiently control the regulation of vital processes can be specifically altered and be used against antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains.

Further information:

Dr. Andreas Wachter
Centre for Plant Molecular Biology (ZMBP)
Auf der Morgenstelle 28
72076 Tübingen
General Genetics
Tel: +49 (0) 70 71/29-7 61 49
Fax: +49 (0) 70 71/29-50 42
E-mail: awachter[at]zmbp.uni-tuebingen.de

Website address: https://www.biooekonomie-bw.de/en/articles/pm/genes-and-proteins-can-t-explain-everything