For the past fifty years, scientists and researchers have studied the RNA polymerase enzyme and gene transcription. Until only a few months ago, researchers had been deconstructing cells and then separating the different parts of cells. They examined the reaction of removing one of the individual parts of the now-separated cell, or the reaction of adding an individual part. Basically, in order to examine the functions of RNA polymerase, researchers could never really observe RNA polymerase in action and how it interacts within a live cell. However, at the Sloan Kettering Institute, researchers have finally discovered a way to observe the gene transcription process in real-time.
The role of RNA polymerase is to synthesize an mRNA template from a strand of DNA. That mRNA will go on to determine how a specific protein is made and define the characteristics of that cell. This process is called gene transcription. For example, a kidney cell will produce proteins that the kidney cell needs to function. This is thanks to gene transcription and RNA polymerase’s role in the specialization of cells.
In July 2019, researchers developed a method called “single-molecule nanoscopy” in which the researchers use a “highly specialized optical microscope” to examine the relationship between RNA polymerase and synthesized mRNA and genes. This was the first time in history that scientists were able to observe RNA polymerase within the nucleus of a cell and how the enzyme functions.
While studying organic compounds and molecules in class, I frequently wondered how scientists were able to make conclusions about molecular behavior or cellular processes, assuming that they saw everything under a powerful microscope. But when I read this article’s title, “Scientists Watch Single Cell Transcription in a Living Cell,” I was curious to find out why this was “groundbreaking.” However, I realized that in class, when we use simple microscopes to observe relatively larger organisms like paramecium, we struggle to keep track when they are constantly moving. After reading this article, I learned that observing processes within the cell or an organelle is an even greater challenge due to the dynamic movements of molecules and their minuscule size. I thought that this was a very cool discovery. I also wondered about what this means for future research. How could this help people? What are the negative effects of this process? How practical is it for labs to use?
Dr. Pertsinidis, the structural biologist (a researcher that takes pictures of extremely small things) whose lab was used to found the single-molecule nanoscopy method, mentions that this new discovery in molecular observation could be used for more than just gene transcription, such as DNA repair or protein synthesis.