Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) have announced what they consider a major breakthrough in engineering systems of RNA molecules through computer-assisted design, which could lead to important improvements across a range of industries, including the development of cheaper advanced biofuels. Scientists will use these new “RNA machines”, to adjust genetic expression in the cells of microorganisms.

Specifically, researchers focused their design-driven approach on RNA sequences that can fold into complicated three-dimensional shapes, called ribozymes and aptazymes. By using JBEI-developed computer-assisted models and simulations, researchers then created complex RNA-based control systems that are able to program a large number of genes. In microorganisms, ”commands” that are sent into the cell will be processed by the RNA-based control systems, enabling them to help develop desired products.

Said Energy Secretary Steven Chu, “This breakthrough at the Joint BioEnergy Institute holds enormous potential for the sustainable production of advanced biofuels and countless other valuable goods.”

While the work at JBEI remains focused on the development of advanced biofuels, JBEI’s researchers believe that their concepts may help other researchers to develop many other products, including biodegradable plastics and therapeutic drugs. Some researchers have already started a project to investigate how to use the “RNA machines” to increase the safety and efficacy of medicine therapies to treat diseases, including diabetes and Parkinson’s. JBEI’s work, which will be featured in the December 23rd issue of Science magazine, is the first of its kind to set up and adjust a RNA system in a predictable way.

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