New & Noteworthy

Not Recycling (RNA) Can be Bad for your Health

January 12, 2017

Improper disposal is bad for the environment and bad for cells. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Not too long ago, it was common to see people pouring used motor oil into street drains. Or to have people dumping old prescription drugs down their sinks.

Practices like these were (and are) terrible for the environment. Nature simply can’t deal with a buildup of this stuff (click here for some examples of the effects of pharmaceuticals on the environment).

Which is why it is so great that there are now ways to deal with waste like this. We can recycle it or at the very least dispose of it more carefully.

Turns out that things are similar in a cell. When its trash isn’t disposed of properly and/or recycled, the cell can suffer. And if cells suffer, so can the person made up of those cells.

One case where something like this is probably happening is in patients with the neurological disorder Pontocerebellar hypoplasia type 1B (PCH1B). These people have a mutated EXOSC3, an important gene for a cell’s RNA exosome. Presumably, this terrible disease is the result of certain cells not being able to properly clear some of their old RNAs.

In a new study out in GENETICS, Fasken and coworkers use good old Saccharomyces cerevisiae to begin to figure out what might be going on in the cells of these patients. They found that the most severe mutation seems to make it harder for the mutated protein to be part of the RNA exosome. As a result of being left out, the mutant protein is degraded more quickly leading to a buildup of some RNAs.

These sets of experiments were made a bit more complicated by the fact that human EXOSC3 cannot substitute for RRP40, the equivalent gene in yeast. This meant the researchers needed to focus on only those disease-causing mutations that hit the most highly conserved residues: EXOSC3-G31A, D132A and W238R.

Of these three, only the W238R yeast equivalent, rrp40-195R had much of an effect on the yeast. Fasken and coworkers propose that this is because this is the most deleterious of the three mutants.

Yeast harboring rrp40-195R grew more slowly at both 30 and 37 degrees C with the more pronounced effect at the higher temperature. At 37 degrees C, this mutant had higher levels of certain RNAs but not others. The RNA exosome was compromised for some but not all yeast RNAs.

And it wasn’t compromised everywhere. Although the RNA exosome works both in the nucleus and the cytoplasm, this mutant appeared to only be compromised in the nucleus. (Check the paper out for the cool way they figured this out.)

Next, the authors wanted to work out what this mutation did to the protein and the exosome. They were able to show that the mutant protein was more unstable than the wild type version and, interestingly, was even less stable when co-expressed with the wild type protein. They also showed that the mutant protein associated less well with the exosome complex and, again, this was exacerbated if the wild type protein was also present.

A reasonable model here is that RRP40 is more prone to degradation when it is not part of the RNA exosome. If true, then the mutant version of the protein is less stable because it is less often a part of the RNA exosome. And wild type RRP40 outcompetes the mutant protein making the mutant stay out of the complex for even more time.

Bad things can happen when you don’t recycle. (Image from Pixabay)

OK, so they have done some good work showing why this mutant of RRP40 affects the growth of a yeast cell. But what we really want to know is if these results explain what is going on in the cells of people with the disease.

Fasken and coworkers tackled this by looking at the effect of expressing the equivalent mouse Exosc3 mutant in the presence of wild type endogenous Exosc3 in mouse neuronal cells (the types of cells affected in PCH1B patients). They found that just like in yeast cells, the mutant was less stable in mouse neuronal cells.

So it looks like the recycling machinery for RNA is broken in these cells because of an unstable component and that this leads to a buildup of toxic RNAs. But if the yeast experiments hold up, not all RNAs are affected.

It is more like people still being able to recycle their cans and bottles but not their motor oil. Certain parts of the environment like waterways take a hit but other parts are left relatively unscathed.

This makes sense when you think about PCH1B. Only a few cell types are affected by the mutation in the EXOSC3 gene. In other words, most cells can deal with a slightly wonky RNA exosome.

Yeast has again helped researchers better understand a genetic disease. Awesome indeed. #APOYG

by Barry Starr, Ph.D., Director of Outreach Activities, Stanford Genetics