Cells access the information stored in DNA by creating RNA to direct the synthesis of proteins through the process of translation. Proteins within a cell have many functions, including building cellular structures and serving as enzyme catalysts for cellular chemical reactions that give cells their specific characteristics. The three main types of RNA directly involved in protein synthesis are messenger RNA (mRNA), ribosomal RNA (rRNA), and transfer RNA (tRNA).
In 1961, French scientists François Jacob and Jacques Monod hypothesized the existence of an intermediary between DNA and its protein products, which they called messenger RNA. Evidence supporting their hypothesis was gathered soon afterwards showing that information from DNA is transmitted to the ribosome for protein synthesis using mRNA. If DNA serves as the complete library of cellular information, mRNA serves as a photocopy of specific information needed at a particular point in time that serves as the instructions to make a protein.
The mRNA carries the message from the DNA, which controls all of the cellular activities in a cell. If a cell requires a certain protein to be synthesized, the gene for this product is “turned on” and the mRNA is synthesized through the process of transcription. The mRNA then interacts with ribosomes and other cellular machinery to direct the synthesis of the protein it encodes during the process of translation. mRNA is relatively unstable and short-lived in the cell, especially in prokaryotic cells, ensuring that proteins are only made when needed.
rRNA and tRNA are stable types of RNA. In prokaryotes and eukaryotes, tRNA and rRNA are encoded in the DNA, then copied into long RNA molecules that are cut to release smaller fragments containing the individual mature RNA species. In eukaryotes, synthesis, cutting, and assembly of rRNA into ribosomes takes place in the nucleolus region of the nucleus, but these activities occur in the cytoplasm of prokaryotes. Neither of these types of RNA carries instructions to direct the synthesis of a polypeptide, but they play other important roles in protein synthesis.
Ribosomes are composed of rRNA and protein. As its name suggests, rRNA is a major constituent of ribosomes, composing up to about 60% of the ribosome by mass and providing the location where the mRNA binds. The rRNA ensures the proper alignment of the mRNA, tRNA, and the ribosomes; the rRNA of the ribosome also has an enzymatic activity (peptidyl transferase) and catalyzes the formation of the peptide bonds between two aligned amino acids during protein synthesis. Although rRNA had long been thought to serve primarily a structural role, its catalytic role within the ribosome was proven in 2000. Scientists in the laboratories of Thomas Steitz (1940–) and Peter Moore (1939–) at Yale University were able to crystallize the ribosome structure from Haloarcula marismortui, a halophilic archaeon isolated from the Dead Sea. Because of the importance of this work, Steitz shared the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with other scientists who made significant contributions to the understanding of ribosome
Transfer RNA is the third main type of RNA and one of the smallest, usually only 70–90 nucleotides long. It carries the correct amino acid to the site of protein synthesis in the ribosome. It is the base pairing between the tRNA and mRNA that allows for the correct amino acid to be inserted in the polypeptide chain being synthesized. Any mutations in the tRNA or rRNA can result in global problems for the cell because both are necessary for proper protein synthesis.
Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/microbiology