The human genome consists of three billion letters of DNA encoding genes, but protein-coding genes make up only 1-2 per cent of the human genome. The role of its other fragments is little known, so it has been called the "dark matter" of the genome.

 

The research of Barbara Uszczyńska-Ratajczak, PhD, a scholarship holder of the 20th L'Oréal-UNESCO Women and Science Programme is focusing on the detection and analysis of non-coding regions of our genetic material to better understand their functions in the living organism. They concern so-called long non-coding RNAs (lncRNAs).

 

Cells actively print the non-protein part of the genome, as well as various types of elements that interact with protein-coding genes. The most intriguing of these are long non-coding RNAs. They are similar to protein-coding genes but do not produce any proteins. However, many of them have key functions in the cell.

 

"Some of them are involved in the development of dangerous diseases, including cancer. However, to date, only about 2 per cent of human lncRNAs (out of about 19,000) have been functionally characterized. The functions for the rest of them remain undefined. One of the main tasks of modern biology is to understand which of them are functional, and how these functions are stored in the genome," explains Barbara Uszczyńska-Ratajczak, PhD, from the Institute of Bioorganic Chemistry of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Poznań.

 

The specialist has been a member of one of the world's most renowned research projects, GENCODE, since 2013, which aims to create high-quality gene catalogues for human and mouse genomes and verify them experimentally. However, her research is more difficult than that understanding the role of non-coding DNA.

 

Finding coding genes in the genome is easier because we know the protein on which it is built from amino acids. For long RNA, its location in the genome must be determined. And this is difficult because non-coding RNA provides no indication of this.

 

Barbara Uszczynska-Ratajczak's team is mapping non-coding genes in the genomes of humans, mice and striped danios to understand their functions in the cell. 

 

"To better understand which lncRNAs are functional and how that function is stored in their sequence we are analyzing the genome of Danio brindle (Danio rerio). We search for evolutionarily invariant lncRNAs between the danio, human and mouse genomes. Next, we will examine the effects of selected evolutionarily invariant lncRNAs on the embryonic development of the Danio. We expect that the results of this project will significantly contribute to the understanding of the biological functions of lncRNAs in the cell and will allow more efficient use of animal models such as mouse or danio for their analysis," he points out.

 

This research may contribute to a better understanding of the mechanisms of certain diseases and the development of new treatments. Perhaps with appropriate manipulations at the molecular level, these conditions can be eliminated in the future.

 

This year, Barbara Uszczyńska-Ratajczak, PhD, received the 20th edition of the L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women and Science grant in the postdoctoral category for her research project "On the dark side of genomes, i.e., identification of long non-coding RNAs in vertebrate genomes". As part of this program, 105 female researchers have been recognized in Poland until 2020. The selection is made each year by a jury chaired by Professor Ewa Łojkowska.

 

Poland is one of 118 countries where scholarships for women conducting scientific research are awarded every year. The For Women and Science program is part of the global For Women in Science initiative. The grantees of the national editions have a chance for international honours: the International Rising Talents award (there are already three Polish women among them: Bernadeta Szewczyk, PhD - 2016, Joanna Sułkowska, PhD - 2017, and Agnieszka Gajewicz, PhD - 2018) and the L'Oréal-UNESCO Award, given every year in Paris as part of the For Women in Science Week to 5 laureates whose discoveries provide answers to key problems of humanity.