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From Early Life to Biofuels: MU Researcher Receives $1.5 Million in Grants to Analyze the Past and Future of RNA

Research could lead to better plant engineering for agriculture and pharmaceuticals

June 12th, 2012

Story Contact: Timothy Wall, 573-882-3346,

NOTE: A detailed article on Burke’s work can be found at:

COLUMBIA, Mo. – Scientists have long known that ribonucleic acid (RNA) carries the information for building proteins, but recently, researchers have found that RNA can perform other functions. Now, an investigator at the University of Missouri’s Bond Life Sciences Center is exploring how RNA could improve pharmaceuticals, agriculture and green energy. Donald Burke, who also is an associate professor of molecular microbiology and immunology in the MU School of Medicine, has received two grants totaling $1.5 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and NASA to study RNA’s role in the earliest life forms on Earth and to create artificial RNA for use in the future.

“RNA is a copy of the genetic blueprint for life that is encoded in DNA,” Burke said. “RNA’s main job is to make proteins as specified by DNA, but RNA also plays other roles that are less understood.”

Central to both of Burke’s investigations is the movement of phosphates. Within any living organism, complex biochemical interchanges take place at the cellular level that can direct the cell’s behavior and sometimes influence the entire organism. Often, attaching a phosphate to a protein, a process known as phosphorylation, is the trigger that “turns on” or “turns off” a protein’s ability to carry out its function. This process appears throughout nature, but scientists have been only able to observe, rather than trigger the process. Burke’s research group has already coaxed RNA into attaching phosphate to itself. Next, Burke hopes to build artificial RNA that can control the proteins’ activities.

Burke’s research for NASA explores the question of how chemistry can lead to life. Many scientists believe that RNA, not DNA, was the dominant genetic molecule when life began on Earth. For the NASA project, Burke will use RNA to attach phosphates to the smallest molecules within cells – such as the building blocks of RNA and DNA – to simulate how RNA may have fostered reproduction of the earliest cells.

For the NSF grant, Burke will explore how RNA can control a cell’s functions, which allows for the opportunity to engineer plants or other organisms for practical use in biofuels or the production of drug ingredients.
“We are building artificial RNA components that can replace and improve upon normal cellular components,” Burke said. “By watching how those new parts influence the way that cells function, this work will help us understand how cells normally work. It also presents opportunities to engineer plants or other organisms for a number of practical uses.”

As phosphate transfer processes are involved in cell division and immune response activation, Burke believes that his line of research also could eventually lead to treatments for cancer and autoimmune diseases.

“It is important to keep in mind that the immediate challenge is to understand RNA well enough to build these exciting new component parts. The first goal is just to build the molecules,” Burke said.