Karen M. Wassarman
Associate Professor of Bacteriology
All organisms contain small RNAs that participate in diverse cellular activities including RNA processing, mRNA stability, translation, protein stability and secretion. These RNAs are defined by their size (< 350 nucleotides in length) and by the fact that they function as an RNA moiety that is not translated into protein. The research in my laboratory focuses on small RNAs in bacteria using molecular, biochemical and genetic approaches to investigate the function and mechanism of action of these RNAs. For example, the 6S RNA is a highly stable and abundant small RNA that associates with and regulates RNA polymerase. Cells with altered levels of 6S RNA show decreased ability to survive stationary phase. Further investigation of 6S RNA action and the genes it regulates has lead to a better understanding of a novel mechanism to control gene expression. In addition, understanding 6S RNA function may provide insights into how cells are able to survive extended nutrient starvation.
There are many new small RNAs in E. coli discovered by genomic and molecular approaches. My laboratory continues to study a number of novel small RNAs to elucidate their roles in the cell. Binding of a common protein (Hfq) has provided hints that some of these small RNAs may regulate translation of target mRNAs under specialized environmental growth conditions. The details of when and how these RNAs act remains to be worked out. In addition, a number of tantalizingly unique small RNAs are present. I anticipate the discovery of numerous additional small RNAs and the revelation of many of their functions will lead to a more complete understanding of the roles small RNAs play in all cells.