IIGB distinguished professor of plant cell and molecular biology, Xuemei Chen, will give the 64th annual Faculty Research Lecture June 3 from 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. in the Genomics Auditorium, Room 1102A.The lecture, “Small RNAs – Small but Powerful,” is presented by the UC Riverside Academic Senate.

Small RNAs were the “dark matter” in biology until the early 2000s, when they were found to be universally present in animals and plants. In the past 15 years, efforts in the research community have unveiled many secrets of these enigmatic molecules and have begun to harness the power of these molecules to better agriculture and human health.

For example it is now known that small RNAs, like proteins and long RNAs, are integral players in the cellular orchestra of life. They seek out target genes through sequence complementarity and repress the expression of these target genes, thus serving a regulatory role in many biological processes. The sequence specificity in small RNA-based gene regulation is a desirable property that can be exploited in biotechnology, making it possible for us to manipulate the expression of specific genes to treat human diseases.

To harness the power of small RNAs, researchers have to understand the biology of small RNAs – how they are made, how are they stabilized, how they are degraded when not needed, how they are transported within and between cells, and how they act to repress target genes. These questions are being actively tackled in the research community using a variety of experimental systems.

Chen’s research group has been using the mustard plant Arabidopsis thaliana, a superb model with sophisticated genetic and molecular tools and resources, to study small RNAs. In her lecture, she will review the insights gained from her work and talk about unexpected findings that opened up new areas of investigation.

Chen, who is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute – Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation Investigator, was trained in the field of plant development, and at an early stage in her independent scientific career, became a founding member of the plant small RNA field. She is recognized as a preeminent figure in the small RNA field in general, despite the fact that most efforts in this field focus on animal experimental systems.

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