[Currents header graphic]

June 23, 1997

UCSC hosts international conference on RNA structure

By Robert Irion

Many of the world's leading biochemists and molecular biologists will convene at UCSC this week for the first international symposium devoted to the physical blueprints of one of life's most basic and crucial molecules.

The meeting, titled "RNA Structure," runs from Thursday through Saturday at the Earth and Marine Sciences Building. About 250 scientists are expected to attend. Scientific talks are open only to registered participants.

Speakers will describe their latest research on the varied forms of RNA, or ribonucleic acid. Less known than its sister molecule DNA but far more versatile, RNA may have played the key role in the origins of the first cells able to reproduce themselves. In modern organisms, RNA directs the assembly of new proteins by ferrying genetic information from DNA and translating our genetic codes--processes essential to life.

Biomedical researchers also strive to understand the workings of RNA viruses, such as HIV, and RNA's function in antibiotic resistance and other medical mysteries.

"This is a tremendously ripe time in the field of RNA structure," said Harry Noller, Robert L. Sinsheimer Professor of Molecular Biology and director of UCSC's Center for the Molecular Biology of RNA (photo). "More new structures will be coming out in the next year than everything that's been done to date."

Learning the structure of RNA--or any biomolecule, for that matter--is vital to understanding its function, Noller noted. RNA can twist into a dizzying array of shapes in the cell, much like twisted telephone cords. "Active sites," where RNA interacts with other molecules, dot the surfaces of these shapes. Each precise shape dictates a specific role for the molecule, much as a key will open only one lock.

The field is so hot, Noller stated, that virtually every RNA pioneer is coming to Santa Cruz this week. Attendees will include Nobel laureate Thomas Cech of the University of Colorado, Boulder, and four members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences: Peter Moore and Thomas Steitz of Yale University, Norman Pace of UC Berkeley, and Noller himself.

Other invited speakers will hail from Canada, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Scotland, Sweden, and across the U.S.

Sessions at the meeting will concern how cells manufacture proteins; RNA structures as determined by nuclear magnetic resonance, crystallography, and computer models; interactions between RNA and proteins; and the structures and behaviors of "ribozymes," bits of RNA that catalyze reactions.

Sponsors are the Center for the Molecular Biology of RNA, funded in 1992 by a $2.5 million grant from the Lucille P. Markey Charitable Trust, and the RNA Society.

To the Currents home page

To UCSC's home page