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A fast, accurate system for quickly solving stubborn RNA structures from pond scum, the SARS-CoV-2 virus and more

RNA structure
Aug 11 2021
Faculty, Fellow, Research, Stanford

The single-stranded genetic material RNA is best known for guiding the assembly of proteins in our cells and carrying the genetic code for viruses like SARS-CoV-2 and HIV. But 40 years ago, scientists discovered another hidden talent: It can catalyze chemical reactions in the cell, including snipping and joining RNA strands. This gave new momentum to the idea that RNA was the driving force behind the evolution of large molecules that ultimately led to life.

While scientists have learned a lot since then, they haven’t been able to get 3D images of naked RNA molecules in high enough resolution to see all the pockets and folds and other structures that are key to understanding how they function. The molecules are like fidgety kids with floppy arms that won’t hold still for a photo unless they’re part of a larger molecular complex that pins them in place.

A new system developed at Stanford University and the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory solves that problem. It combines computer software and cryogenic electron microscopy, or cryo-EM, to determine the 3D structures of RNA-only molecules with unprecedented speed, accuracy and resolution.

Study contributor, Kalli Kappel, is a 2014 SGF Fellow.

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