European initiative aims to advance the understanding of RNA communication

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RNA, which stands for ribonucleic acid has become a mainstream word in society due to the COVID-19 RNA vaccine - yet the value of this biomolecule to society could extend to numerous sectors including food security and personalized medicine.

RNA is one of the oldest molecules on earth that, like DNA, has a relatively simple alphabet of 4 nucleotides. A nucleotide is the basic building block of nucleic acids (RNA and DNA).

While DNA contains the blueprint for all genes in an organism, RNA instructs the cell which proteins to make and regulates how much and when. The dynamic nature of RNA means that it can help cells to be able to respond to the environment and fight infections.

Fascinating discoveries show that RNA can also be released from cells and transferred to other cells as a form of cell-to-cell communication. This extracellular RNA (exRNA) is important in a variety of health and disease processes, e.g. in the growth and metastasis of tumors.

There is increasing interest in using RNA-based therapies in disease and infection control since RNA can be easily designed and exploited to mediate gene regulation. However, there are still gaps in knowledge of how to design and deliver RNA. There is an urgent need to learn from, and account for, the natural RNA communication systems that exist and the different organisms that participate. How exRNAs are selected for export, how they traffic outside the cell, how they integrate into a functional pathway in a recipient, and how pathogens exploit these mechanisms.

exRNA has also been found across microbe, fungi, plant, and animal systems and could play a much more fundamental role in how organisms communicate with and influence one another. Recent studies have shown that nearly all classes of pathogens can release RNA that might help the pathogen change host cells and survive. This has now led to numerous initiatives to explore how exRNA may be used and exploited for diagnostics, therapies, and pest control.

Introducing exRNA-PATH COST Action

Scientists studying exRNA and its carriers across diverse biological models, from honeybees to plants and humans are now gathered through European COST Action, RNA communication across kingdoms: new mechanisms and strategies in pathogen control (exRNA-PATH), which has been established to coordinate basic research as well as healthcare and agricultural initiatives involving exRNA.

Europe leads the way in RNA communication research, and exRNA-PATH is harnessing this expertise to establish a collaborative platform. The COST Action involves over 180 scientists from 21 countries, to exchange information on how different species use RNA in communication, with a specific focus on host-pathogen interactions. This collaborative network spans diverse biological systems and backgrounds (including biologists, chemists, bioinformaticians, physicists, and medics), and translational applications of RNA delivery. Industry engagement is also a key focus, with three European companies already on board and plans to expand connections.

The main goal of this initiative is to advance our understanding of RNA communication. The aim is to establish a research agenda focused on targeting RNA in a way that aligns with sustainable development goals, particularly in the realms of infectious disease and pest control.

There is a huge need for coordination of knowledge and expertise to advance the young field of RNA communication - it is hugely rewarding to help bring together diverse voices and disciplines to do this."

Dr. Amy Buck, COST Action Chair

In a strategic move towards sustained leadership in extracellular RNA (exRNA) research, Europe is set to strengthen its commercial standing and harness exRNA for innovative strategies against emerging infectious diseases, including COVID-19, and sustainable pest control.

Aligned with European Research Area priorities and the UN Sustainable Development Goals targets, the initiative prioritizes support for exRNA research in International Cooperation. Emphasizing unity and data sharing, the Action aims to foster collaboration among researchers to use diverse models (plants, animals, microbes) in a bottom-up approach to One Health. The establishment of a comprehensive long-term roadmap will support European and national policymakers, as well as funding bodies, in shaping the future of exRNA research and innovation.

Given the advances in RNA manufacturing during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is an exciting time to understand how to harness this universal language to improve health and the environment safely and sustainably.

Inter-species RNA communication

In September 2023, Dr Amy Buck, Professor of RNA and Infection Biology, who chairs the COST Action was awarded the Max Planck-Humboldt Medal, for her research into inter-species communication via RNA.

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