Gene games

Published: Thursday 31 August 2000

New research suggests that some viruses may get a head start in the infection process by sending RNA (ribonucleic acid) as well as DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) into cells. Thomas Shenk and Wade Bresnahan of Princeton University, New Jersey, found that in human cytomegaloviruses, the mRNA transcripts for four different genes are injected into the host cell along with the virus' DNA genome. While the DNA travels to the nucleus to be read, the RNA molecules can direct the production of proteins straight away. Says Shenk: "The principal benefit to the virus is likely to be the potential to express a set of proteins before the genome is activated." The researchers believe that this might enable the virus -- which only causes disease in pregnant women or people with immune problems -- to steal a march on cellular defences ( Science , Vol 288, p2373).

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