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Molecular biology

Experimental data and predictive algorithms combine to reveal the essential biomolecule’s shape-shifting.

Every second, a myriad of shapeless strands of RNA fold, origami-style, into intricate structures inside living cells. Now, for the first time, researchers can watch a data-driven video of this folding as RNA molecules are made by the cellular machinery.

The 3D structure of an RNA molecule is tailored to its function, such as regulating gene expression. To visualize how RNA takes shape, Alan Chen at the University at Albany in New York, Julius Lucks at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and their colleagues ran experiments to examine how RNA folds as it is synthesized, then fed the data into models that predict RNA folding. This allowed the researchers to generate videos that reconstruct the folding of a type of RNA molecule whose final shape resembles a hairpin.

The footage shows that as the RNA strand grows, it twists, forming knot-like structures. But as more RNA building blocks are added to the strand, the knots unravel, allowing the molecule’s structure to emerge.

The findings could help researchers to develop therapies that target RNA molecules, including treatments for a genetic disorder that causes muscular weakness and wasting.

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