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News / 07.28.05

Petunias, RNAi and enzymatic kung fu on NOVA

By Michelle Nhuch, Communications

RNA interference (RNAi) has been hailed as a revolutionary new approach to basic biological research as well as drug development and discovery. One measure of how RNAi has caught the imagination of scientists is the fact that it was featured in the July 26, 2005, broadcast of NOVA scienceNOW. Broad Institute director Eric Lander participated in the program by helping to explain the genetic mechanisms by which RNAi carries out its tasks.

The first clue to the existence of RNAi was stumbled upon by a researcher who wanted to make petunias more purple by inserting extra "purple" genes. However, he ended up with white petunias instead. This observation led eventually to the discovery that every living cell has a built-in defense strategy, i.e., RNAi, that interferes with genetic code gone awry, performing "enzymatic kung fu" to destroy the errant information.

Today, researchers worldwide are using RNAi as a way of dissecting complex biological processes by switching off genes one at a time and observing the results. This approach should reveal the genes that are key to a variety of diseases, including those genes critical to a cancer cell's survival, genes that promote resistance to HIV or genes that mediate diabetes. To that end, the Broad Institute is leading a coalition of public and private institutions (The RNAi Consortium) to develop validated RNAi libraries against all human and mouse genes and making those libraries available to researchers everywhere in order to accelerate discovery of basic genetic mechanisms of human disease.