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12 August 2013

Portland Press Limited
£21.95 (Members’ price: £16.46)

Essays in Biochemistry Volume 54: The Role of Non-Coding RNA in Biology

M.A. Lindsay and S. Griffiths-Jones (eds)

This latest volume of Essays in Biochemistry tackles a hot topic in biochemistry and a very rapidly moving field; non-coding RNAs, what they are, where they come from and what roles they might play in biology. The publication last summer of the ENCODE (Encyclopaedia of DNA Elements) project exploded the myth that the majority of the human genome contained ‘junk’ sequence and encoded largely transcriptional ‘noise’. Now we understand that at least 80% of the human genome serves some biochemical function whether it is to regulate gene transcription initiation and termination or to encode what we now appreciate as a bewildering array of non-coding RNAs of very diverse functions. ENCODE uncovered 8 800 small non-coding RNAs and 9 600 long non-coding RNAs. In other words, our genomes encode almost as many potentially functional RNA molecules as they do proteins. Whether all of these RNA molecules are indeed functional is still being investigated, but evidence is emerging of very significant functions in development, differentiation, metabolism and disease for a large number.

The book includes ten compact chapters discussing a variety of non-coding RNAs. Some chapters concentrate on small non- coding RNAs that we know a lot about such as snRNAs (small nuclear RNAs). These have key well-defined roles, some of them catalytic, in directing splicing through RNA–RNA interactions and recruiting RNA-binding proteins to form the spliceosome. Similarly, many years of research in recent years have gone into exploring the biosynthesis and modes of action of the ubiquitous miRNAs (microRNAs) that control gene expression in animals and plants and whose misregulation appears to have pivotal roles in a wide variety of disease processes. Other chapters address non-coding RNAs such as lncRNAs (long non-coding RNAs) and NATs (natural antisense transcripts) whose functions are just being uncovered. Intriguingly, these RNAs appear to regulate chromatin and so play very fundamental roles in biology. Highlighted topics include biogenesis and regulation of non-coding RNAs, their mechanisms of action and therapeutic targeting of those non-coding RNAs involved in disease pathogenesis.

This textbook is aimed at teachers and students of RNA biology. It fills an important niche currently lacking in molecular cell biology and RNA textbooks. Each chapter is ‘standalone’ and includes useful abstract and summary boxes stating the main points of the chapter as well as, in many cases, an extremely comprehensive reference list for further reading. When read as a whole, the book provides an excellent and comprehensive overview of the current state of the field. It highlights what is already known, but also what major questions still require to be addressed. All of the main topics in mammalian non-coding RNAs are covered; however, there is little on lower eukaryotic or prokaryotic (e.g. CRISPRs) non-coding RNAs. That being said, I would heartily recommend this textbook to senior undergraduate students wishing to explore RNA biology. It is pitched at an appropriate level and the information is easily accessible due to the compact format, the diagrams and tables and summary boxes. Crucially, this volume will impart to the reader the sense of excitement that is driving research into non-coding RNAs. The next decade should see further surprises on the road to understand gene expression and its regulation by the central molecule in biochemistry: RNA!

Sheila Graham (University of Glasgow, UK)

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