Yeah... I know I suck at keeping this thing updated. Exams are over, they went fine. It snowed, the snow melted, and it's supposed to snow again tomorrow. My parents and brother visited Boston for a week, and left yesterday. I hope everyone had a jubilent solstice :-)
I think now it's time for me to actually try to explain what it is I'm doing here at Harvard. I personally think that explaining science to non-scientists is one of our most important jobs in academia, but few people even attempt it, and so most are pretty bad at it. I haven't had a lot of opportunities to do it myself, so I have a lot to learn. Please leave comments, ask questions, and make me better (also, leave comments because if you don't, I will think no one is reading and will lose all motivation to write even sporadically).
As I mentioned previously, right now I'm working on things called micro-RNAs (miR for short), and in order to explain what they do and why they are interesting, I should give some back-ground. Most people know a little something about DNA: it contains the information on how to build an organism. DNA is the principal component of heredity (kids look like their parents, because they inherit DNA, identical twins look alike because they have identical DNA etc), but DNA itself doesn't do any work. It's like a schematic or a blueprint. Blueprints don't actually move around and make buildings, they just spell out how to make the building.
Which brings us to proteins, the molecules that actually do the work. DNA is just a set of instructions on how to make proteins. If you have brown eyes, it's because your DNA contains instructions on how to make a protein that creates a brown-colored pigment in your eyes. So what do microRNA's do? microRNA's fine-tune the expression of genes, and therefore proteins. As you might imagine, it takes an incredible about of precision to take a single set of instructions and churn out all of the complexity that makes up a typical human (or mouse or worm). microRNA's are just one level of regulation, and they work by blocking the expression of particular proteins.
So who cares?
Since microRNA's regulate the expression of genes, when things go wrong with microRNAs, you can seriously throw off the calibration of cells. The disregulation of microRNA's has been implicated in several types of cancer and a few other diseases. Besides all that, they are still poorly understood and that makes them appealing to study.
I am almost done with this rotation, and I am currently looking for the next lab to rotate in. I hope this post was at least somewhat informative. If not, please let me know so I can do better (too much detail, not enough?). I'm still honing my ability to describe this stuff in print, so any suggestions are most welcome.