MicroRNAs (miRNAs) are a newly-discovered class of short (19-24 nucleotides), non-coding RNA found in eukaryotic cells. miRNA regulates post-transcriptional silencing of protein coding genes, a process miRNA were not known to be involved in until the early 2000s. Basically, a new type of protein regulator in plants and animals has recently been discovered and it has some almost science-fiction-like properties.
By regulating protein expression, organisms are able to adjust to different external variables in the environment without having to change their DNA. Plants are especially dependent on this sort of passive defense because they do not have the luxury of major movement like humans and other animals.
Until recently, scientists were not even aware that tiny key-like miRNAs were involved in turning on/off the proteins an organism can or cannot express. The critical biological processes that are modulated by miRNAs range from immune response to the maintenance of cell and tissue identity and everything in-between. Without the help (or hindrance) of miRNA, organisms would have significantly different life strategies than they do today.
But the real shocker came in 2011 when a team of Chinese researchers isolated plant miRNA found in rice that did not naturally occur in the human body (http://www.ask-force.org/web/Genomics/Zhang-Exogenous-plant-MIR168a-2011.pdf). By extracting miRNA from human blood sera, scientists were able to isolate the same miRNA that was made by the plants the humans had recently ingested. Studies were further confirmed when the researchers extracted plant miRNA from the organs of mice that were fed large quantities of food containing the exogenous plant miRNA.
What’s the moral of the story?
Plant miRNA can make it into your bloodstream through food intake and eventually cause changes in your protein expression! A new meaning to ‘you are what you eat’.
But what are the consequences for humans who have ingested foreign plant miRNA?
In the same study, certain plant miRNA was found to decrease the removal of LDL-cholesterol from the body by decreasing the liver’s ability to express the proper proteins for its removal. Drug companies rejoice! A totally new way to tinker with human health…
How does this discovery impact our understanding of what food to eat?
Vegetarians can take a chill pill before freaking out that their plant-heavy diets may cause detrimental health effects. There is no reason these plant miRNA (or miRNA from any organism in any kingdom) wouldn’t be in even higher concentrations in mammal or bird meat than in edible plants.
More importantly, however, are the unknown human health effects created from genetically modified crops made as a result of miRNA manipulation.
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