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A New Role for Proteins
DNA encodes RNAs and RNAs encode proteins. This flow of cellular information is commonly referred to as the Central Dogma of Molecular Biology. However, a team of researchers discovered a notable exception to this rule where a protein can direct the synthesis of another protein, without an RNA template. This unusual mode of protein synthesis only occurs after normal protein synthesis has failed and appears to send a distress signal to the cell that something has gone awry.
The researchers first detected template-free protein synthesis by visualizing it directly by using a technique known as electron cryo-microscopy (cryo-EM). The image analysis, performed on the University of Utah Center for High Performance Computing cluster, required processing hundreds of thousands of 2D images to compute a 3D reconstruction of the cellular assembly. Once the researchers analyzed the structure and performed follow-up biochemical experiments, they knew they had stumbled upon an unexpected discovery. "In this case, we have a protein playing a role similar to that filled by messenger RNA," says Adam Frost, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor at University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and adjunct professor of biochemistry at the University of Utah, who led the research team. "I love this story because it blurs the lines of what we thought proteins could do." This work was featured in the January 2, 2015 issue of Science.