AskDefine | Define RNA

Dictionary Definition

RNA n : (biochemistry) a long linear polymer of nucleotides found in the nucleus but mainly in the cytoplasm of a cell where it is associated with microsomes; it transmits genetic information from DNA to the cytoplasm and controls certain chemical processes in the cell; "ribonucleic acid is the genetic material of some viruses" [syn: ribonucleic acid]

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abbreviation of ribonucleic acid
  • Bulgarian: РНК (рибонуклеинова киселина)
  • Finnish: RNA (ribonukleiinihappo)
  • Hungarian: RNS
  • Icelandic: RKS
  • Latvian: RNS (ribonukleīnskābe)
  • Romanian: ARN
  • Russian: РНК (рибонуклеиновая кислота)
  • Slovak: RNK (ribonukleová kyselina)
  • Spanish: ARN (ácido ribonucleico)

Extensive Definition

Ribonucleic acid or RNA is a nucleic acid made from a long chain of nucleotide units. Each nucleotide consists of a nitrogenous base, a ribose sugar, and a phosphate. RNA is very similar to DNA, but differs in a few important structural details: in the cell RNA is usually single stranded, while DNA is usually double stranded. RNA nucleotides contain ribose while DNA contains deoxyribose (a type of ribose that lacks one oxygen atom), and RNA has the nucleotide uracil rather than thymine which is present in DNA.
RNA is transcribed from DNA by enzymes called RNA polymerases and is generally further processed by other enzymes. Some of these RNA-processing enzymes contain RNA as part of their structures. RNA is also central to the translation of some RNAs into proteins. In this process, a type of RNA called messenger RNA carries information from DNA to structures called ribosomes. These ribosomes are made from proteins and ribosomal RNAs, which come together to form a molecular machine that can read messenger RNAs and translate the information they carry into proteins. It has also been known since the 1990s that several types of RNA regulate which genes are active.


Each nucleotide in RNA contains a ribose sugar, with carbons numbered 1' through 5'. A base is attached to the 1' position, generally adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G) or uracil (U). Adenine and guanine are purines, cytosine and uracil are pyrimidines. A phosphate group is attached to the 3' position of one ribose and the 5' position of the next. The phosphate groups have a negative charge each at physiological pH, making RNA a charged molecule (polyanion). The bases may form hydrogen bonds between cytosine and guanine, between adenine and uracil and between guanine and uracil. or the GNRA tetraloop that has a guanine–adenine base-pair.
An important structural feature of RNA that distinguishes it from DNA is the presence of a hydroxyl group at the 2' position of the ribose sugar. The presence of this functional group causes the helix to adopt the A-form geometry rather than the B-form most commonly observed in DNA. This results in a very deep and narrow major groove and a shallow and wide minor groove. A second consequence of the presence of the 2'-hydroxyl group is that in conformationally flexible regions of an RNA molecule (that is, not involved in formation of a double helix), it can chemically attack the adjacent phosphodiester bond to cleave the backbone.
RNA is transcribed with only four bases (adenine, cytosine, guanine and uracil), but there are numerous modified bases and sugars in mature RNAs. Pseudouridine (Ψ), in which the linkage between uracil and ribose is changed from a C–N bond to a C–C bond, and ribothymidine (T), are found in various places (most notably in the TΨC loop of tRNA). Another notable modified base is hypoxanthine, a deaminated adenine base whose nucleoside is called inosine. Inosine plays a key role in the wobble hypothesis of the genetic code. There are nearly 100 other naturally occurring modified nucleosides, of which pseudouridine and nucleosides with 2'-O-methylribose are the most common. The specific roles of many of these modifications in RNA are not fully understood. However, it is notable that in ribosomal RNA, many of the post-transcriptional modifications occur in highly functional regions, such as the peptidyl transferase center and the subunit interface, implying that they are important for normal function.
The functional form of single stranded RNA molecules, just like proteins, frequently requires a specific tertiary structure. The scaffold for this structure is provided by secondary structural elements which are hydrogen bonds within the molecule. This leads to several recognizable "domains" of secondary structure like hairpin loops, bulges and internal loops. There has been a significant amount of research directed at RNA structure prediction.

Comparison with DNA

RNA and DNA differ in three main ways. First, unlike DNA which is double-stranded, RNA is a single-stranded molecule in most of its biological roles and has a much shorter chain of nucleotides. Second, while DNA contains deoxyribose, RNA contains ribose, (there is no hydroxyl group attached to the pentose ring in the 2' position in DNA). These hydroxyl groups make RNA less stable than DNA because it is more prone to hydrolysis. Third, the complementary nucleotide to adenine is not thymine, as it is in DNA, but rather uracil, which is an unmethylated form of thymine. For instance, determination of the structure of the ribosome—an enzyme that catalyzes peptide bond formation—revealed that its active site is composed entirely of RNA.


Synthesis of RNA is usually catalyzed by an enzyme—RNA polymerase—using DNA as a template, a process known as transcription. Initiation of transcription begins with the binding of the enzyme to a promoter sequence in the DNA (usually found "upstream" of a gene). The DNA double helix is unwound by the helicase activity of the enzyme. The enzyme then progresses along the template strand in the 3’ to 5’ direction, synthesizing a complementary RNA molecule with elongation occurring in the 5’ to 3’ direction. The DNA sequence also dictates where termination of RNA synthesis will occur.
RNAs are often modified by enzymes after transcription. For example, a poly(A) tail and a 5' cap are added to eukaryotic pre-mRNA.
There are also a number of RNA-dependent RNA polymerases as well that use RNA as their template for synthesis of a new strand of RNA. For instance, a number of RNA viruses (such as poliovirus) use this type of enzyme to replicate their genetic material. Also, it is known that RNA-dependent RNA polymerases are required for the RNA interference pathway in many organisms.

Types of RNA

seealso List of RNAs


Messenger RNA (mRNA) is the RNA that carries information from DNA to the ribosome, the sites of protein synthesis (translation) in the cell. The coding sequence of the mRNA determines the amino acid sequence in the protein that is produced. There are also non-coding RNAs involved in gene regulation, RNA processing and other roles. Certain RNAs are able to catalyse chemical reactions such as cutting and ligating other RNA molecules, and the catalysis of peptide bond formation in the ribosome; rRNA is extremely abundant and makes up 80% of the 10 mg/ml RNA found in a typical eukaryotic cytoplasm.
Transfer-messenger RNA (tmRNA) is found in many bacteria and plastids. It tags proteins encoded by mRNAs that lack stop codons for degradation and prevents the ribosome from stalling.

In gene regulation

Several types of RNA can downregulate gene expression by being complementary to a part of an mRNA or gene. MicroRNAs (miRNA; 21-22 nt) are found in eukaryotes and act through RNA interference (RNAi), where an effector complex of miRNA and enzymes can break down mRNA which the miRNA is complementary to, block the mRNA from being translated, or cause a promoter to be methylated which generally downregulates its gene. Some miRNAs upregulate genes instead (RNA activation). While small interfering RNAs (siRNA; 20-25 nt) are often produced by breakdown of viral RNA, there are also endogenous sources of siRNAs in plants. siRNAs act through RNA interference in a fashion similar to miRNAs, including RNA activation. Animals have Piwi-interacting RNAs (piRNA; 29-30 nt) which are active in germline cells and are thought to be a defense against transposons and play a role in gametogenesis. Antisense RNAs are widespread among bacteria; most downregulate a gene, but a few are activators of transcription. Antisense RNA acts by binding to an mRNA, forming double-stranded RNA that is degraded by enzymes. There are many mRNA-like large non-coding RNAs that regulate genes in eukaryotes, one such RNA is Xist which coats one X chromosome in female mammals and inactivates it.
An mRNA may contain regulatory elements itself, such as riboswitches, in the 5' UTR or 3' UTR; these cis-regulatory elements regulate the activity of that mRNA.

In RNA processing

Many RNAs are involved in modifying other RNAs. Introns are spliced out of pre-mRNA by spliceosomes, which contain several small nuclear RNAs (snRNA), RNA can also be altered by having its nucleotides modified to other nucleotides than A, C, G and U. In eukaryotes, modifications of RNA nucleotides are generally directed by small nucleolar RNAs (snoRNA; 60-300 nt), found in the nucleolus and cajal bodies. snoRNAs associate with enzymes and guide them to a spot on an RNA by basepairing to that RNA. These enzymes then perform the nucleotide modification. rRNAs and tRNAs are extensively modified, but snRNAs and mRNAs can also be the target of base modification.

RNA genomes

Like DNA, RNA can be an information carrier. RNA viruses have genomes composed of RNA, plus a variety of proteins encoded by that genome. The viral genome is replicated by some of those proteins, while other proteins protect the genome as the virus particle moves to a new host cell. Viroids are another group of pathogens, but they consist only of RNA, do not encode any protein and are replicated by a host plant cell's polymerase.

In reverse transcription

Reverse transcribing viruses replicate their genomes by reverse transcribing DNA copies from their RNA; these DNA copies are then transcribed to new RNA. Retrotransposons also spread by copying DNA and RNA from one another, and telomerase contains an RNA that is used as template for building the ends of eukaryotic chromosomes.

Double-stranded RNA

Double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) is RNA with two complementary strands, similar to the DNA found in all cells. dsRNA forms the genetic material of some viruses (double-stranded RNA viruses). Double-stranded RNA such as viral RNA or siRNA can trigger RNA interference in eukaryotes, as well as interferon response in vertebrates.


Nucleic acids were discovered in 1868 by Friedrich Miescher, who called the material 'nuclein' since it was found in the nucleus. It was later discovered that prokaryotic cells, which do not have a nucleus, also contain nucleic acids. The role of RNA in protein synthesis was suspected already in 1939. Severo Ochoa won the 1959 Nobel Prize in Medicine after he discovered how RNA is synthesized. The sequence of the 77 nucleotides of a yeast tRNA was found by Robert W. Holley in 1965, winning Holley the 1968 Nobel Prize in Medicine. Carl Woese realised RNA can be catalytic in 1967 and proposed that the earliest forms of life relied on RNA both to carry genetic information and to catalyze biochemical reactions—an RNA world. In 1976, Walter Fiers and his team determined the first complete nucleotide sequence of an RNA virus genome, that of bacteriophage MS2. In 1990 it was found that introduced genes can silence homologous endogenous genes in plants, now known to be a result of RNA interference. At about the same time, 22 nt long RNAs, now called microRNAs, were found to have a role in the development of C. elegans. The discovery of gene regulatory RNAs has led to attempts to develop drugs made of RNA, like siRNA, to silence genes.


External links

RNA in Arabic: حمض ريبي نووي
RNA in Bengali: আরএনএ
RNA in Min Nan: RNA
RNA in Bosnian: Ribonukleinska kiselina
RNA in Breton: Trenkenn ribonukleek
RNA in Bulgarian: РНК
RNA in Catalan: Àcid ribonucleic
RNA in Czech: RNA
RNA in Danish: RNA
RNA in German: Ribonukleinsäure
RNA in Estonian: Ribonukleiinhape
RNA in Modern Greek (1453-): RNA
RNA in Spanish: Ácido ribonucleico
RNA in Esperanto: RNA
RNA in Basque: Azido erribonukleiko
RNA in Faroese: RNA
RNA in French: Acide ribonucléique
RNA in Galician: Ácido ribonucleico
RNA in Korean: RNA
RNA in Croatian: Ribonukleinska kiselina
RNA in Indonesian: Asam ribonukleat
RNA in Icelandic: Ríbósakjarnsýra
RNA in Italian: RNA
RNA in Hebrew: RNA
RNA in Georgian: რიბონუკლეინის მჟავა
RNA in Latin: Acidum ribonucleicum
RNA in Latvian: Ribonukleīnskābe
RNA in Luxembourgish: RNS
RNA in Lithuanian: Ribonukleino rūgštis
RNA in Hungarian: Ribonukleinsav
RNA in Macedonian: РНК
RNA in Mongolian: РНХ
RNA in Dutch: RNA
RNA in Japanese: リボ核酸
RNA in Norwegian: RNA
RNA in Norwegian Nynorsk: Ribonukleinsyre
RNA in Occitan (post 1500): Acid ribonucleïc
RNA in Polish: Kwasy rybonukleinowe
RNA in Portuguese: RNA
RNA in Romanian: ARN
RNA in Russian: Рибонуклеиновые кислоты
RNA in Simple English: RNA
RNA in Slovak: Ribonukleová kyselina
RNA in Slovenian: Ribonukleinska kislina
RNA in Serbian: Рибонуклеинска киселина
RNA in Serbo-Croatian: Ribonukleinska kiselina
RNA in Finnish: RNA
RNA in Swedish: Ribonukleinsyra
RNA in Tamil: ரைபோ கரு அமிலம்
RNA in Telugu: రైబో కేంద్రక ఆమ్లం
RNA in Thai: อาร์เอ็นเอ
RNA in Vietnamese: RNA
RNA in Turkish: RNA
RNA in Ukrainian: РНК
RNA in Urdu: رائبو مرکزی ترشہ
RNA in Yoruba: RNA
RNA in Chinese: 核糖核酸

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Altmann theory, DNA, DNA double helix, De Vries theory, Galtonian theory, Mendelianism, Mendelism, Verworn theory, Weismann theory, Weismannism, Wiesner theory, allele, allelomorph, anticodon, biotype, birth, character, chromatid, chromatin, chromosome, codon, deoxyribonucleic acid, determinant, determiner, diathesis, endowment, eugenics, factor, gene, gene complex, gene flow, gene pool, genesiology, genetic code, genetic drift, genetics, genotype, hereditability, hereditary character, heredity, heritability, heritage, inborn capacity, inheritability, inheritance, mRNA, matrocliny, messenger RNA, nucleotide, operator gene, operon, patrocliny, pharmacogenetics, recessive character, regulator gene, replication, ribosomal RNA, structural gene, tRNA, transfer RNA
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