Ribonucleic Acid (RNA) stability can be affected by processes inside a cell as well as a number of environmental factors. Cells produce far more of these nucleotide chains than they use or need, indicating that degradation processes are at work. As individual units of RNA reach the end of their useful life, they also break down, illustrating that some natural degradation is directly encoded into their structure. Researchers study RNA stability to learn more about how and why it breaks down, as this information can be useful for tasks ranging from analyzing RNA in the lab to understanding how organisms thrive in extreme climates.
Within individual cells, a number of enzymes that affect RNA stability are in circulation. These enzymes can degrade RNA into components the body may reuse and recycle. Internal encoding within an RNA sequence can also limit the strand’s lifetime. Signals sent from elsewhere in the body, like hormones, can also be involved in the process of regulating RNA stability. Cellular messaging is used to control a wide variety of processes, making it critical for these signals to be able to interact with RNA.
Environmental factors are another contributing factor. High temperatures tend to cause RNA to unravel, a process called denaturing. This is a particular subject of interest with thermophilic organisms which enjoy very high temperatures, like the worms found around hydrothermal vents in the depths of the ocean. Biologists were shocked to find life at those extreme temperatures because normally, their RNA wouldn’t be able to withstand the heat.
Exposure to toxins can also play a role in RNA stability. People exposed to poisons can experience a breakdown of cellular processes medicated by RNA because their genetic material starts to degrade in response to the poison. This can also be deliberately induced, in the case of medications that attack the RNA found in microorganisms to interfere with their processes of reproduction. The medication latches on to target strings to pull them apart, causing the organism to die.
In lab settings, RNA stability is an important consideration. Samples being evaluated need to have intact, clean RNA in order to get the best results. The facility may need to carefully consider storage options in order to retain the integrity of samples. Chemical buffers and other tools provide a mechanism for preserving samples as efficiently as possible to make it possible to study them and rely on the results. Forensic study in particular requires clean samples, as the results may be used in a court of law.