In 2004, oncologist Gideon Rechavi at Tel Aviv University in Israel and his colleagues compared all the human genomic DNA sequences then available with their corresponding messenger RNAs — the molecules that carry the information needed to make a protein from a gene. They were looking for signs that one of the nucleotide building blocks in the RNA sequence, called adenosine (A), had changed to another building block called inosine (I). This ‘A-to-I editing’ can alter a protein’s coding sequence, and, in humans, is crucial for keeping the innate immune response in check. “It sounds simple, but in real life it was really complicated,” Rechavi recalls. “Several groups had tried it before and failed” because sequencing mistakes and single-nucleotide mutations had made the data noisy. But using a new bioinformatics approach, his team uncovered thousands of sites in the transcriptome — the complete set of mRNAs found in an organism or cell population — and later studies upped the number into the millions.
Inosine is something of a special case: researchers can readily detect this chink in the armour by comparing DNA and RNA sequences. But at least one-quarter of our mRNAs harbour chemical tags — decorations to the A, C, G and U nucleotides — that are invisible to today’s sequencing technologies. (Similar chemical tags, called epigenetic markers, are also found on DNA.) Researchers aren’t sure what these chemical changes in RNA do, but they’re trying to find out.
A wave of studies over the past five years — many of which focus on a specific RNA mark called N6-methyladenosine (m6A) — have mapped these alterations across transcriptomes and demonstrated their importance to health and disease. But the problem is vast: these marks coat not only mRNA but other RNA transcripts as well, and they cut across all the domains of life and beyond, marking even viruses with their presence.
The modifications themselves are not new. What has given them meaning and driven epitranscriptomics into the spotlight is the discovery of enzymes that can add, remove and interpret them. In 2010, chemical biologist Chuan He at the University of Chicago, Illinois, proposed that these chemical tags could be reversible and important regulators of gene expression. Not long afterwards, his group demonstrated the first eraser of these marks on mRNA, an enzyme called FTO. That discovery meant that m6A wasn’t just a passive mark — cells actively controlled it. And this realization came at about the same time that global approaches, harnessing the power of next-generation sequencing, made it possible to map m6A and other modifications across the transcriptome.