The evolution of knowledge about RNA: from its discovery to the present day

RNA is an essential molecule for life, but its discovery and understanding has been a decades-long process. In this article, we will explore the evolution of knowledge about RNA from its discovery to the present day and how it has revolutionised our understanding of molecular biology and genetics.

Introduction: What is RNA?

Ribonucleic acid (RNA) is an essential molecule for life, present in all living things. It is a polymer made up of nucleotides, like deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), but unlike DNA, RNA is a single-stranded molecule and contains uracil instead of thymine.

RNA has multiple functions in the cell, including participating in protein synthesis, transporting amino acids and regulating gene expression. Since their discovery in the 20th century, much progress has been made in understanding their structure, types and functions, enabling their application in research and medicine. In this article, we will explore the evolution of knowledge about RNA, from its first findings to current techniques for its study and future prospects for its therapeutic use.

Many scientists and researchers have contributed to the discovery of many important findings around RNA. Some of these relevant milestones are:

  1. 1865: Gregor Mendel discovers the laws of heredity and postulates the existence of hereditary elements.
  2. 1889: Richard Altmann describes for the first time nuclear substances in the cell nucleus, later identified as ribonucleic acid (RNA).
  3. 1909: Phoebus Levene determines that RNA is composed of ribose, phosphate and nitrogenous bases by hydrolysis.
  4. 1938: Marjory Stephenson isolates RNA from the spirochete responsible for syphilis.
  5. 1955: Alex Rich and David Davies propose the double helix structure of RNA.
  6. 1958: Francis Crick proposes the hypothesis of the RNA “adaptor” or “adaptor”, which plays an important role in the translation of RNA into proteins.
  7. 1960: Sydney Brenner, François Jacob and Matthew Meselson discover messenger RNA (mRNA).
  8. 1961: Marshall Nirenberg and Heinrich Matthaei discover the genetic code, revealing that specific sequences of nitrogenous bases in RNA determine the sequence of amino acids in proteins.
  9. 1967: Howard Temin and David Baltimore discover reverse transcriptase, the enzyme that enables the synthesis of DNA from RNA.
  10. 1970: Aaron Klug obtains the first atomic-level image of an RNA molecule using X-ray crystallography.
  11. 1977: Frederick Sanger develops the Sanger strand RNA sequencing method, a technique that made it possible to sequence RNA fragments on a large scale.
  12. 2001: Lynn Margulis and other scientists propose the endosymbiotic theory, which suggests that mitochondria and plastids have an ancestral bacterial origin and possess their own RNA.


Discovery of RNA: the first discoveries in the 20th century.

In the 20th century, the first findings on RNA (ribonucleic acid) were made. In 1909, the German biochemist Walter Siegfried Albrecht discovered that RNA is a molecule distinct from DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid).

Later, in the 1930s, American biochemists James Sumner and John Northrop demonstrated that RNA is a molecule capable of acting as an enzyme, which earned them the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1946.

In the 1950s, the Spanish biochemist Severo Ochoa and his collaborators described the synthesis of RNA in vitro, which made it possible to study this molecule in the laboratory. These discoveries laid the foundation for understanding the structure and function of RNA, and opened the door to new research in cell and molecular biology.

Structure of RNA: how this molecule is made.

RNA is a fundamental molecule in cell biology, as it is responsible for the transmission of genetic information and its subsequent translation into proteins. The structure of RNA is similar to that of DNA, but with some important differences, such as the presence of a different nitrogenous base, uracil, instead of thymine.

RNA is composed of a single strand, which folds back on itself to form complex, function-specific three-dimensional structures. There are three main types of RNA: messenger RNA, which carries genetic information from DNA to ribosomes, transfer RNA, which carries amino acids needed for protein synthesis, and ribosomal RNA, which is part of ribosomes and is responsible for protein synthesis.

Understanding the structure of RNA has been key to the development of advanced sequencing and transcriptomics techniques, which allow the study of gene expression on a large scale.

In addition, the discovery of new types of RNA, such as microRNAs, has opened up new avenues of research in diseases such as cancer and has led to the exploration of potential RNA-based therapies. In summary, the structure of RNA is a fundamental building block in the evolution of knowledge about this molecule and its current relevance in medicine and biotechnology.

RNA functions: its role in protein synthesis and other cellular processes.

RNA is an essential molecule in cell biology, as its main function is the synthesis of proteins from the genetic information contained in DNA. In addition to this function, RNA also has other important tasks in the cell, such as regulating gene expression and defending against viruses and other pathogens.

The three main types of RNA are messenger, transfer and ribosomal, each with a specific function in protein synthesis.

The discovery of reverse transcription in the 1970s was crucial for research into HIV and other retrotranscribed viruses. More recently, the involvement of microRNAs in diseases such as cancer has been discovered, leading to new therapeutic strategies based on the modulation of gene expression.

Current techniques for the study of RNA, such as massive sequencing and transcriptomics, allow a detailed analysis of gene expression in different conditions and tissues. In the future, RNA research is expected to remain an area of great interest, both for understanding cell biology and for developing new therapies for human diseases.


The importance of reverse transcription discovery in HIV research.

Reverse transcription is a key process in HIV research, allowing the virus to convert its RNA into DNA and integrate into the host cell genome. This discovery, made in the 1970s by researchers Howard Temin and David Baltimore, broke new ground in the study of HIV biology and the search for effective HIV treatments.

Reverse transcription has also been used in other areas of research, such as the creation of genetic tools to modify the DNA of cells and the production of recombinant proteins.

The discovery of microRNAs and their involvement in diseases such as cancer.

The discovery of microRNAs has been a crucial breakthrough in research into diseases such as cancer. These small RNAs are able to regulate gene expression, which means they can act as switches to turn protein production on or off.

In cancer, some microRNAs have been found to be deregulated, which may contribute to the growth and spread of cancer cells.These small RNAs are able to regulate gene expression, which means they can act as switches to turn protein production on or off. Therefore, the study of microRNAs has become a promising line of research for the development of new cancer therapies.

As technology has advanced, new techniques have been developed to study RNA, such as massive sequencing and transcriptomics, allowing a deeper understanding of the complexity of RNA and its role in cell biology.

Current techniques for studying RNA: mass sequencing, transcriptomics, etc.

A number of techniques are now available to study RNA, including massive sequencing and transcriptomics. Mass sequencing allows the identification and analysis of the complete RNA sequence of a sample, which has revolutionised genomics research and enabled the discovery of new types of RNA and their function in cellular processes.

Transcriptomics focuses on the analysis of gene expression at the messenger RNA level in a specific cell or tissue, which provides information on gene regulation and cellular response to different stimuli. These techniques have led to significant advances in the understanding of RNA and its role in cell biology, and are expected to remain key tools in future research on RNA and its potential therapeutic use in genetic diseases and cancer.

  1. Future perspectives in RNA research and its potential therapeutic use.

As for future prospects in RNA research, the field is expected to continue to grow and provide new insights into cellular and molecular biology. New techniques are being investigated to study RNA, such as massive sequencing and transcriptomics, which make it possible to analyse large amounts of genetic information in a short time and with greater precision. In addition, the therapeutic potential of RNA in the treatment of various diseases, such as cancer and genetic diseases, is being explored.

RNA-based therapies, such as oligonucleotides and RNA interference, are being developed that could be used in the future to treat diseases for which there is currently no cure, such as those we are developing at OLIGOFASTX.


  1. Science Direct – RNA: timeline, properties and functions:
  2. National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) – A brief history of RNA:
  3. Nature – A brief history of the RNA molecule:
  4. RNA Society – History and discovery of RNA:
  5. Genes – History of RNA discovery and studies:
  6. Sociedad Española de Bioquímica y Biología Molecular (SEBBM) – RNA: history, structure and functions:


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