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The exploration of small RNA molecules

A major research grant worth about two million euros has been awarded to Prof. Dr. Kai Papenfort, Professor for General Microbiology at the Friedrich Schiller University Jena, the European Research Council (ERC) announced today. The so-called "Consolidator Grant" will support Papenfort's project "ArtRNA - Artificial RNA regulators to probe, control, and design gene regulatory networks in bacteria".

Small RNA molecules regulate gene activity in bacteria

Microbiologist Kai Papenfort and his team are working on the function of small RNA molecules (small RNA, sRNA) as part of the "Balance of the Microverse" Cluster of Excellence at the University of Jena. RNA is found in all organisms and plays an important role primarily as an information carrier in protein biosynthesis. "In addition, small RNA molecules also perform regulatory tasks in cell metabolism," says Papenfort. In bacteria, for example, the activity of an estimated one-fifth of all genes is controlled by small RNA molecules. They can practically switch genes on or off.

Papenfort and his team are utilising this mechanism, which is widespread in nature, for applications in synthetic biology: they are developing artificial sRNA molecules with which they can specifically intervene in the genetics of bacteria. "Artificial sRNA regulators can be used to study the molecular mechanisms of microbial gene expression in detail," explains the 41-year-old. In this way, defined genes can be targeted and their activity controlled through targeted RNA design. "In this way, we can, on the one hand, gain fundamental insights into gene functions and regulation circles in organisms." On the other hand, this method also enables the researchers, e. g., to systematically study the response to antibiotics in pathogenic bacteria, he said.

The fight against multi-resistant pathogens

There is still a great need for this: Millions of deaths worldwide each year are due to antibiotic-resistant bacteria. That is why the European Commission and WHO have made the fight against multidrug-resistant pathogens a key objective in their health and food safety programs. "We expect that the work outlined in our project will help to achieve this goal and promote a better understanding of the emergence of antibiotic resistance and the underlying molecular mechanisms," says Papenfort, who has already received an ERC "Starting Grant" in 2017.

The funding from the "Consolidator Grant" will be used to fill two postdoctoral positions and one doctoral position in Papenfort's team over the next five years. "Specifically, we have set our sights on three areas of work," announces the Jena microbiologist. First, large sRNA libraries with more than 250,000 differently structured sRNA molecules will be used to elucidate the mechanisms that play a role in the interaction of sRNA and bacterial genes. Based on this, the researchers hope to target bacterial genes that play a role in antibiotic effects or resistance. And third, they want to further develop these techniques so that almost any bacterial gene can be regulated with artificial sRNA molecules and used for biotechnological applications, for instance.

Text: Ute Schönfelder
Picture: Anne Günther