Nobel laureate and Distinguished Professor Tom Cech presents a virtual lecture titled “The Magic of RNA: From CRISPR to Coronavirus Vaccines.”
In the past, ribonucleic acid (RNA) was considered to be mostly an intermediary between the genetic code in DNA and the proteins that do most of the work in biology; DNA makes RNA, and RNA makes protein. The discovery of catalytic, or messenger RNA (Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1989: Sidney Altman and Thomas Cech) opened our eyes to RNA’s having more exciting functions. But the thrill of RNA was just getting started. Gene editing now uses guide RNAs to recruit the CRISPR genome editing machinery to specific sites of action on chromosomes, with exciting medical potential (Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 2020: Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna).
The coronavirus pandemic is now a battle of RNA against RNA: An RNA virus is being fought with RNA vaccines. Like many other viruses, COVID-19 is an RNA virus. Unlike in humans and other mammals, its genetic makeup is encoded in RNA, which causes our protein synthesis machinery to mistake it for RNA produced by our own DNA. Traditional vaccines against viruses inject inactivated virus proteins called antigens. The antigens stimulate the body’s immune system to recognize the specific virus and produce antibodies in response. RNA-based vaccines—such as those of Pfizer and Moderna—do not introduce an antigen, but instead introduce a short sequence of synthetic messenger RNA (mRNA) that is enclosed in a specially engineered lipid nanoparticle. This mRNA provides cells with instructions to produce the virus antigen themselves. Because the COVID-19 virus spike protein is foreign to our bodies, our bodies will make antibodies that inactivate the protein.
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About CU Boulder Retired Faculty Association (UCBRFA):
The CU Boulder Retired Faculty Association (UCBRFA) presents the distinguished professors of the University of Colorado, a lecture and presentation series featuring some of our finest professors and their extraordinary research and scholarly work.