11.8: RNA Interference
RNA interference (RNAi) is a process in which a small non-coding RNA molecule blocks the expression of a gene by binding to its messenger RNA (mRNA) transcript, preventing the protein from being translated.
This process occurs naturally in cells, often through the activity of microRNAs. Researchers can take advantage of this mechanism by introducing synthetic RNAs to selectively deactivate specific genes for research or therapeutic purposes. For example, RNAi could be used to suppress genes that are overactive in diseases such as cancer.
First, double-stranded RNA with a sequence complementary to the targeted gene is synthesized. Different types of double-stranded RNA can be used, including short interfering RNA (siRNA) and small hairpin RNA (shRNA). shRNA is one strand of RNA that is folded over—creating a double-stranded RNA with a hairpin loop on one side—and is a precursor of siRNA.
The double-stranded RNA is then introduced into cells by methods such as injection or delivery by vectors, such as modified viruses. If shRNA is used, RNase enzymes in the cell, such as Dicer, cleave it down to the shorter siRNA, removing the hairpin loop.
The siRNA then binds to an enzyme called Argonaute, which is part of a complex called RISC (RNA-induced silencing complex). Here, the two strands of the siRNA separate. One floats away while the other—called the guide strand—remains attached to RISC. It is called the guide strand because this is the strand that binds to the mRNA, through complementary base pairing, bringing the whole RISC to the mRNA. This binding is very specific because the siRNA is usually designed to be completely complementary to the targeted mRNA. Argonaute then cleaves and degrades the mRNA, preventing it from being translated into protein—effectively silencing the gene.