Written by: Zoe Yeoh

Editors: Stephanie Palmer and Jennifer Baker

The University of Michigan’s Center for RNA Biomedicine hosted its 7th annual RNA symposium on March 23rd, 2023. The theme of this year’s symposium was “From Molecules to Medicines,” and it featured an impressive lineup of RNA experts who shared fascinating research on a wide range of RNA topics.

The event was kicked off by welcome remarks from Dr. Nils Walter, Director of the University of Michigan Center for RNA Biomedicine, who highlighted the important roles of RNA in our daily lives and in U-M research. Presently, scientists at U-M study RNA using tools from cell biology, biophysics, and bioinformatics to conduct cutting-edge research. Dr. Walter shared the 2023 vision for the Center for RNA Biomedicine, where mRNA vaccines and other RNA-based medicines at U-M will be a key focus. His remarks were followed by a virtual welcome by University of Michigan president Dr. Santa Ono, who offered thoughtful commentary on the role of RNA in the future of medicine: “The promise of RNA research is only beginning to unfold…it is clear that RNA therapeutics will continue to irrevocably alter medical paradigms.” 

In the first half of the day, attendees learned about research from Dr. Steve Henikoff, Dr. Jody Puglisi, and Dr. Geraldine Seydoux, who shared key findings from their labs during their respective keynote addresses.

Dr. Steve Henikoff from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center introduced several methods that his lab developed to characterize protein-DNA and protein-RNA interaction dynamics. One of these methods, CUT&Tag (Cleavage Under Targets and Tagmentation), improves upon existing chromatin profiling methods like CHIP-Seq to enable high-quality datasets at low sample concentrations. 

Next was Dr. Jody Puglisi from Stanford University. Dr. Puglisi primarily used FRET (Fluorescence Resonance Energy Transfer) to obtain a dynamic understanding of translation initiation. To close his talk, he offered this piece of advice to trainees: “Science can be tough, but don’t forget that you have the privilege of exploring nature. It’s an intellectual voyage, and it’s a great gift.”

The last keynote speaker of the morning was Dr. Geraldine Seydoux from Johns Hopkins University, who shared her ongoing research into RNA granules. Her lab observed that liquid-like RNA granules called P-granules in the C. elegans germline appeared to segregate and localize asymmetrically. Further, they were able to identify a new class of P granule-associated proteins called MEG proteins, which acted like a Pickering agent – proteins that coat the granules and prevent complete fusion. 

New to the RNA symposium this year was the poster session. The poster session provided trainees the opportunity to highlight ongoing RNA research primarily done in U-M biology labs. Methods represented were highly diverse, ranging from the in vitro – FRET and NMR, for example – to the in vivo, with cell-based and rodent studies. Curiosity, excitement, and discussion abounded as scientists of all levels shared their knowledge with each other. 

After lunch, Dr. Lisa Prosser, Vice President for Health Sciences Research at the U-M office of research, welcomed attendees back to the symposium and offered some words of wisdom on the power of collaboration. “The stunning success of mRNA vaccines is one small example of the tremendous potential within this field,” Dr. Prosser said. “That potential is only as strong as our collaborations.” 

The fourth keynote speaker was Dr. Amy Gladfelter, currently at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her research focuses on condensates, micron-scale compartments of eukaryotic cells that safeguard proteins and nucleic acid despite having no membranes. Her interdisciplinary team of biologists, engineers, physicists, and mathematicians use various methods to study how micron-level cellular organization affects form and function, and today, Dr. Gladfelter presented findings that relate RNA size and structure to condensate formation.

Next up was a data blitz presented by two members of the U-M RNA community. Dr. Rachel Niederer spoke about her recent research in translational control elements within 5’-UTRs, and Dr. Jay Brito Querido spoke about the structure of Human Tumor Suppressor Protein Pdcd4 in complex with the ribosome. The duo, also known as Team Translation, is excited to start research in their brand new lab spaces and hopes to make cool discoveries in the coming years. 

The final keynote speaker of the day was Dr. Joseph Wedekind at the University of Rochester Medical School. He spoke about his lab’s research on bacterial preQ1 riboswitches which bind tightly to preQ1, a precursor for a post-translationally modified nucleotide. His research revealed that certain classes in these riboswitches were differentially regulated by either the Shine-Dalgarno sequence, the bacterial translation regulatory motif, or the presence of a pseudoknot in the secondary RNA structure. 

Last but not least, all of the keynote speakers convened for a panel discussion on the symposium’s overarching topic, “From Molecules to Medicines.” The conversation ranged from a discussion of challenges RNA researchers  face when bringing scientific advances to the clinic to words of advice for trainees. 

Overall, the 7th annual RNA symposium was once again a success. It offered an excellent opportunity for the U-M RNA community to converge and learn from experts in the field, especially during the poster session and the panel discussion. As Dr. Mats Ljungman, Director of the University of Michigan Center for RNA Biomedicine, enthusiastically said at the close of the symposium: “See you all next year!”

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