History of Messenger RNA

This unique meeting combined a historical perspective with updates on exciting developments and research directions of the current day. Speakers included pioneers in the field of mRNA-each of whom has made a great contribution to the field. The scientists presented their historic work from today's perspective, and then discussed it with the audience. In addition, an invited speaker covered the field from a historian's perspective.

This meeting explored the first formulation and proof of the messenger RNA (mRNA) idea, and how further research over more than five decades has expanded and updated the fundamental concept. Speakers discussed discoveries associated with: negative and positive regulation of synthesis; function and turnover of mRNA in bacteria and archaea; fundamental discoveries in the context of the eukaryotic nucleus; current understanding of the regulation of mRNA synthesis and processing; and transport, longevity, and translation of mRNA in the eukaryotic cytoplasm.

More than 140 scientists, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, scholars, writers, journalists, and others attended the meeting.

Highlights of the meeting

The meeting included seven presentation sessions spread over three days. Topics discussed included:
  • Early history of mRNA
  • RNA research in the 1950s
  • 1960 experiment by Jacob, Meselson, and Brenner
  • Important research tools and systems in mRNA research
  • Bacterial mRNA
  • AraC
  • Electron microscopy
  • Adenovirus
  • mRNA research over five decades
  • Polyribosomes, primary transcripts, capping
  • Eukaryotic mRNA, Pol II, capping enzyme
  • Transcription, 3'-end cleavage, polyadenylation, and termination
  • Splicing, snRNPs, spliceosome
  • Splicing mutations, disease, and therapy
  • mRNA transport, nuclear RNA, and hnRNP particles
  • mRNA turnover, nonsense-mediated mRNA decay, exosome
  • Translation, spatial regulation, small open reading frames

The meeting was the fifth in a series of CSHL Genentech Center Conferences on the History of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology. These conferences aim to explore important themes of discovery in the biological sciences, bringing together scientists who made seminal discoveries with others whose interests include: the current status of the field, the historical progress of the field, and/or the application of the techniques and approaches in biotechnology and medicine.


  • James Darnell, The Rockefeller University
  • Adrian Krainer, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
  • Mila Pollock, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory


  • Arnold Berk, University of California, Los Angeles
  • Douglas Black, HHMI, University of California, Los Angeles
  • George Brawerman, Tufts University School of Medicine
  • Sydney Brenner, Janelia Farm Research Campus, HHMI
  • Stephen Buratowski, Harvard Medical School
  • Louise Chow, University of Alabama
  • Juan Pablo Couso, University of Sussex, UK
  • James Darnell, The Rockefeller University
  • Gideon Dreyfuss, HHMI, University of Pennsylvania
  • Grigorii Georgiev, Russian Academy of Sciences, Russia
  • Adrian Krainer, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
  • Tom Maniatis, Columbia University Medical Center
  • James Manley, Columbia University
  • Lynne Maquat, University of Rochester Medical Center
  • Matthew Meselson, Harvard University
  • Melissa Moore, University of Massachusetts Medical School
  • Bernard Moss, National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases
  • Arthur Pardee, Dana Farber Cancer Institute
  • Mila Pollock, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
  • Rich Roberts, New England BioLabs
  • Robert Roeder, The Rockefeller University
  • Mike Rosbash, Brandeis University
  • Robert Schleif, John Hopkins University
  • Robert Singer, Albert Einstein College of Medicine
  • Nahum Sonenberg, McGill University, Montré, Quéc, Canada
  • Joan Steitz, Yale University/ HHMI
  • David Tollervey, Wellcome Center for Cell Biology; University of Edinburgh, UK
  • Jonathan Warner, Albert Einstein College of Medicine
  • James Watson, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

What is Messenger RNA?

The central dogma of molecular biology explains the flow of genetic information within a biological system. Often described as, "DNA makes RNA and RNA makes protein," this explanation was first stated by Francis Crick in 1956 (1). However, at that time, the exact nature of the system that conveyed the genetic information from DNA to protein was not known.

Along with transfer RNA (tRNA) and ribosomal RNA (rRNA), mRNA is an essential part of the protein-manufacturing system of a cell. As in DNA, the genetic information in mRNA is encoded in the sequence of nucleotides. The sequence is divided into three-base units called codons, which code for specific amino acids or termination of protein synthesis. mRNA has a rather brief existence: It is created through transcription, but is ultimately degraded. During its existence, an mRNA molecule may be processed, edited, and transported prior to translation into a protein. (1) Crick, F.H.C. (1956): On Protein Synthesis. Symp. Soc. Exp. Biol. XII, 139-163.

In his keynote speech, Messenger RNA, The Idea and the Experiment (1960), Nobel laureate Sydney Brenner told the story of the classic experiment that he, Francois Jacob, and Matthew Meselson performed, which definitively showed that RNA consisting of a copy of the information in DNA acted as a messenger in the protein-making process, transporting information from the nucleus to the ribosomal machinery in the cell. Francois Jacob and Jacques Monod named messenger RNA.

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Copyright © 2014 Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory   Image: Pre-mRNA-1ysv-tubes by Vossman, Wikimedia