RNA BEGINNINGS Research that began as a quest to see how plant cells become infested with viruses ended in questions about the origins of life. In that quest, Steven A. Lommel of North Carolina State University in Raleigh and colleagues used a reporter gene to follow the viral activity in its host. But the gene didn't light up as expected during their study of the genome of a red clover necrotic mosaic Dianthovirus (RCNMV) genome [T.L. Sit, et al, Science, 28:1829-32, Aug. 7,1998]. The genome contains two RNA components--RNA-1, which encodes the virus's polymerase and the viral protein coat, and RNA-2, which encodes the movement protein that allows cell-to-cell infection. They discovered that a specific base-pairing interaction occurs between RNA-2 and RNA-1 that actually activates transcription leading to the making of the viral protein coat. "Amazingly, the virus doesn't express the gene unless the RNA is present," Lommel...

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