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In order for the instructions contained within a gene to ultimately execute some function in the body, the nucleotides, or letters, that make up the gene's DNA sequence must be "read" and used to produce a messenger RNA (mRNA). This mRNA must then be translated into a functional protein. A number of different pathways within the cell influence this essential biological process, informing whether, when, and to what extent a gene is expressed. A major class of such regulators are microRNAs (miRNAs). These minute RNAs—they are, on average, 22 nucleotides long—join with a protein called Argonaute to cause certain mRNAs to be degraded, which in turn decreases the amount of translation of those mRNAs into their functional protein forms. Scientists have identified hundreds of miRNAs that are common amongst mammals and other vertebrate animals, and most mammalian mRNAs are targeted by at least one of these miRNAs—an indication of their pervasive importance to our biology. Accurately predicting how any particular miRNA will affect gene expression in a cell is important for understanding our own biology, and might facilitate the design of therapeutic drugs that affect or utilize miRNAs, but the complexity of the miRNA pathway makes this sort of prediction difficult.
The success rate with which a miRNA is able to repress a specific gene (by degrading its mRNA) is called its targeting efficacy, and researchers have used a variety of models to calculate it, with mixed results. In the past, researchers have treated miRNAs as a group and looked at average behavior in order to make predictions, because there simply wasn't enough data specific to individual miRNAs available to do otherwise. However, Whitehead Institute Member David Bartel, who is also a professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, graduate student Sean...
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