Geneticists have not only discovered a new form of genetic modification, they have also shown that this process is involved with obesity, and the development of diabetes. When genes are being translated into functional proteins to help with various processes in the cell, a form of genetic code called RNA is formed. This is a 'transcript' of the gene, and can be used to make the actual translation to protein. What the scientists found, is that these RNA molecules, called mRNA to be exact, can be reversibly modified, impacting their function as a translate tool to make proteins. A protein that was shown to be involved with the modification of RNA, is also involved with obesity and diabetes. Not only could this discovery lead to a whole new field of research, it might also give rise to novel therapies to combat obesity and diabetes.
The responsible protein, dubbed FTO, was already known to be involved with obesity and diabetes, but its exact biological function remained a mystery. With this recent study, researchers have shown that FTO plays a role removing a methyl molecule from the RNA. Up until now, scientists have not been able to figure out how this process works. However, the addition (methylation) and removal (demethylation) of methyl groups in DNA has been studied extensively. There, methyl groups, together with other molecules, make up the field of epigenetics, which studies heritable changes in gene expression by other causes than change in the genetic code itself.
FTO removes methyl groups from the RNA that are attached to an A molecule in the chain. RNA consists of four basic molecules, called nucleotides, which are often revered to by their first letter: A(denosine), U(racil), C(ytosine) and G(uanine). By doing this, FTO affects the function of the RNA molecule, but it is not yet known in what way. What is known, however, is that reducing the functionality of FTO increases risk on obesity and diabetes, which means that demethylation on the "A" molecules of RNA seems to have a positive effect on people's health.
The influence of methylation and demethylation in RNA has barely been studied, because DNA epigenetics were deemed to be more important. Because FTO is a demethylating agent for RNA, and has a major impact on the development of obesity and diabetes, the researchers have not only found proof for proteins that influence RNA epigenetics, but they have also shown its importance by linking it to health and disease.
By studying epigenetics on RNA, we might open up a whole new area of research. Now that we know it can have physiological consequences, we have a new angle for developing drugs. Not only to fight obesity and diabetes, but also other diseases that have a yet to be discovered underlying epigenetic problem in their RNA molecules.