The Cinderella Molecule

Steven Shapin

  • Gene Machine: The Race to Decipher the Secrets of the Ribosome by Venki Ramakrishnan
    Oneworld, 272 pp, £20.00, September 2018, ISBN 978 1 78607 436 2

RNA gets no respect. It is similar in make-up to its charismatic chemical cousin, with small structural variations. DNA is a very long double-stranded helix while many forms of RNA are shorter and single-stranded; one of the four nitrogenous bases in DNA is different from its equivalent in RNA; and the base-bearing backbone in RNA contains the five-carbon sugar ribose, while its equivalent in DNA has one less oxygen atom – hence deoxyribose (so RNA is ‘ribonucleic acid’ while DNA is ‘deoxyribonucleic acid’). It’s the physiological role of these small differences that accounts for RNA’s status as the Cinderella of the nucleic acid family. You don’t see corporate mission statements declaring that ‘innovation is in our RNA’ (CommBank), or car advertisements claiming that ‘adventure is in our RNA’ (Land Rover). When the much missed Arsène Wenger said that Arsenal were ‘an attacking team’, he didn’t add that forward play was ‘in our RNA’. And you won’t find an encyclopedia entry explaining that ‘Your RNA is what makes you uniquely you.’ The schematised DNA double-helix is one of the instantly recognisable graphic icons of modern bioscience, indeed of modernity itself, but if you aren’t a biochemist or geneticist, you’ll have no idea what RNA looks like and little notion of its role in the scheme of life.

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