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Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Using modified nucleotides to make mRNA vaccines

The key features of the mRNA vaccines are the use of modified nucleotides in their synthesis and the use of lipid nanoparticles to deliver them to cells. The main difference between the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and the Moderna vaccine is in the delivery system. The lipid vescicules used by Moderna are somewhat more stable and the vaccine doesn't need to be kept constantly at ultra-low temperatures.

Both vaccines use modified RNAs. They synthesize the RNA using modified nucleotides based on variants of uridine; namely, pseudouridine, N1-methylpseudouridine and 5-methylcytidine. (The structures of the nucleosides are from Andries et al., 2015).) The best versions are those that use both 5-methylcytidine and N1-methylpseudouridine.

I'm not an expert on these mRNAs and their delivery systems but the way I understand it is that regular RNA is antigenic—it induces antibodies against it, presumably when it is accidently released from the lipid vesicles outside of the cell. The modified versions are much less antigenic. As an added bonus, the modified RNA is more stable and more efficiently translated.

Two of the key papers are ...

Andries, O., Mc Cafferty, S., De Smedt, S.C., Weiss, R., Sanders, N.N. and Kitada, T. (2015) "N1-methylpseudouridine-incorporated mRNA outperforms pseudouridine-incorporated mRNA by providing enhanced protein expression and reduced immunogenicity in mammalian cell lines and mice." Journal of Controlled Release 217: 337-344. [doi: 10.1016/j.jconrel.2015.08.051]

Pardi, N., Tuyishime, S., Muramatsu, H., Kariko, K., Mui, B.L., Tam, Y.K., Madden, T.D., Hope, M.J. and Weissman, D. (2015) "Expression kinetics of nucleoside-modified mRNA delivered in lipid nanoparticles to mice by various routes." Journal of Controlled Release 217: 345-351. [doi: 10.1016/j.jconrel.2015.08.007]

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Why is the Central Dogma so hard to understand?

The Central Dogma of molecular biology states ...

... once (sequential) information has passed into protein it cannot get out again (F.H.C. Crick, 1958).

The central dogma of molecular biology deals with the detailed residue-by-residue transfer of sequential information. It states that such information cannot be transferred from protein to either protein or nucleic acid (F.H.C. Crick, 1970).

This is not difficult to understand since Francis Crick made it very clear in his original 1958 paper and again in his 1970 paper in Nature [see Basic Concepts: The Central Dogma of Molecular Biology]. There's nothing particularly complicated about the Central Dogma. It merely states the obvious fact that sequence information can flow from nucleic acid to protein but not the other way around.

So, why do so many scientists have trouble grasping this simple idea? Why do they continue to misinterpret the Central Dogma while quoting Crick? I seems obvious that they haven't read the paper(s) they are referencing.

I just came across another example of such ignorance and it is so outrageous that I just can't help sharing it with you. Here's a few sentences from a recent review in the 2020 issue of Annual Reviews of Genomics and Human Genetics (Zerbino et al., 2020).

Once the role of DNA was proven, genes became physical components. Protein-coding genes could be characterized by the genetic code, which was determined in 1965, and could thus be defined by the open reading frames (ORFs). However, exceptions to Francis Crick's central dogma of genes as blueprints for protein synthesis (Crick, 1958) were already being uncovered: first tRNA and rRNA and then a broad variety of noncoding RNAs.

I can't imagine what the authors were thinking when they wrote this. If the Central Dogma actually said that the only role for genes was to make proteins then surely the discovery of tRNA and rRNA would have refuted the Central Dogma and relegated it to the dustbin of history. So why bother even mentioning it in 2020?

Crick, F.H.C. (1958) On protein synthesis. Symp. Soc. Exp. Biol. XII:138-163. [PDF]

Crick, F. (1970) Central Dogma of Molecular Biology. Nature 227, 561-563. [PDF file]

Zerbino, D.R., Frankish, A. and Flicek, P. (2020) "Progress, Challenges, and Surprises in Annotating the Human Genome." Annual review of genomics and human genetics 21:55-79. [doi: 10.1146/annurev-genom-121119-083418]

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

On the misrepresentation of facts about lncRNAs

I've been complaining for years about how opponents of junk DNA misrepresent and distort the scientific literature. The same complaints apply to the misrepresentation of data on alternative splicing and on the prevalence of noncoding genes. Sometimes the misrepresentation is subtle so you hardly notice it.

I'm going to illustrate subtle misrepresentation by quoting a recent commentary on lncRNAs that's just been published in BioEssays. The main part of the essay deals with ways of determining the function of lncRNAs with an emphasis on the sructures of RNA and RNA-protein complexes. The authors don't make any specific claims about the number of functional RNAs in humans but it's clear from the context that they think this number is very large.