One of the most beautiful aspects of the genetic code is its simplicity: three letters of DNA combine in 64 different ways, easily spelled out in a handy table, to encode the 20 standard amino acids that combine to form a protein. But between DNA and proteins comes RNA, and an expanding realm of complexity. RNA is a shape-shifter, sometimes carrying genetic messages and sometimes regulating them, adopting a multitude of structures that can affect its function. In a paper published in this issue (see page 53), a team of researchers led by Benjamin Blencowe and Brendan Frey of the University of Toronto in Ontario, Canada, reports the first attempt to define a second genetic code: one that predicts how segments of messenger RNA transcribed from a given gene can be mixed and matched to yield multiple products in different tissues, a process called alternative splicing. This time there is no simple table — in its place are algorithms that combine more than 200 different features of DNA with predictions of RNA structure.
The work highlights the rapid progress that computational methods have made in modelling the RNA landscape. In addition to understanding alternative splicing, informatics is helping researchers to predict RNA structures, and to identify the targets of small regulatory snippets of RNA that do not encode protein. “It's an exciting time,” says Christopher Burge, a computational biologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. “There's going to be a lot of progress in the next few years.”
More here. (Note: For Abbas who loves the elegance and beauty in nature more than anyone else I know.)