New research on gene expression may have introduced a whole new realm of study into the world of scientific discovery.
Of Mice and Rice
A team of scientists in China found that trace amounts of genetic material (microRNA) from food can enter a person’s blood stream and actually affect the way your genes work. Scientists had never before explored the relationship of the biochemistry of such unrelated organisms. An article from Discover Magazine explains the phenomenon:
- MicroRNAs, or miRNAs, are molecules involved in regulation of gene expression, the transcription of genes into proteins. miRNAs bind to the messenger RNAs that ferry genetic information from DNA to the ribosomes, which translate messenger RNAs into proteins.
- When a miRNA binds a messenger RNA, it keeps it from being translated, thus preventing that gene from being expressed
While studying human blood, these scientists found some microRNAs from plants (particularly rice) along with the natural microRNAs. This intrigued them, so they fed rice to some mice and noticed that the microRNA from the rice was preventing the mice’s own RNA from filtering out bad cholesterol from the liver. When researchers fed them rice again but added a molecule to void the effects of the microRNA, their livers began filtering out the bad cholesterol again.
Biochemical Effects of RNA
Eating affects the biochemical processes of the body, but scientists didn’t realize that an organism so different from mammals could produce such an effect on our gene expression and how our body functions. Rice is a staple of the Chinese diet, but research may later begin also focusing on corn or other crops more common to other parts of the world as well. It is very likely that rice is not the only plant whose microRNA stays active after being cooked and traveling through the digestive system. Future research may eventually discover more about plant microRNA and how it can affect the human diet.