A Binghamton University chemistry professor has been awarded over $500,000 to study the biological properties of native and chemically modified ribonucleic acids (RNA).

Only 2 percent of human deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) encode functional proteins. However, approximately 70 to 90 percent of DNA is converted into RNA. For associate chemistry professor Eriks Rozners, the mystery behind the abundance of RNA warranted closer inspection.

“For a long time RNA was believed to be just a messenger or middleman in the transfer of genetic information in DNA to proteins,” Rozners said. “RNA plays a significantly more complicated role that we do not yet completely understand.”

RNA is one of three major biological molecules, along with DNA and proteins, involved in the expression of genes. Genetic information encoded in the DNA sequence is converted into a corresponding RNA sequence. RNA serves as a template for the production of proteins, which perform the function of genes in cells.

However, only 2 percent of all RNA is used as a template. The rest of RNA plays important regulatory roles in gene expression that researchers are just starting to appreciate.

Rozners has received grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to study modified small RNA molecules that have components of both RNA and proteins.

The NIH grant, totaling $1.5 million over four years, will fund collaborative research by BU and Vanderbilt University, the University of Rochester and Dharmacon, a biotech company, working on the chemical modification of RNA molecules.

In the study, Rozners and collaborators will look at ways to chemically modify the structure of RNA molecules that regulate gene expression. These synthetic molecules could provide pharmaceutical companies with necessary research tools, since knowledge of gene expression can help in developing drugs to fight diseases such as cancer.

Currently, modified RNA molecules can only knock out genes in the cells used in reproduction, but not in the body cells.

“If we can improve the properties of these synthetic RNA molecules so that instead of just cells we could apply them to a whole animal, that would be a huge advantage,” Rozners said.

The NSF grant, which awarded a total of $570,000 to Rozners and collaborators at the University at Albany, will go toward research on compounds called peptide nucleic acids (PNAs). PNAs recognize certain parts of the RNA code and will only bind to them.

While the science behind PNA is not new, Dziyana Hnedzko, a fifth-year doctoral candidate studying organic chemistry, said that a novel aspect of the project is to increase the effectiveness of cellular uptake of PNA, which usually needs the help of other molecules to enter cells.

Wayne Jones, the chair of the chemistry department, said these projects help expand the breadth of research being conducted at BU.

“These two research awards are a great addition to the research going on in chemistry,” Jones wrote in an email. “This is a very strategic project as biological chemistry is one of three research thrusts that the chemistry department has identified in our Strategic Plan.”

Dennis McGee, a professor of biology and a collaborator on the NSF project, said he enjoyed working with Rozners on the biological components of the study.

“I get to use my cell biology experience in a new twist on biology,” McGee said. “Also, I get to learn about their whole new world of chemistry of these PNAs.”

Although the projects are just getting started, Rozners said he is excited to see what information about the roles of RNA will be gleaned from the research.

“We’re not just doing this because we’re curious,” Rozners said. “We’re doing this because we believe that it will help us understand processes better overall.”