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Almost all types of RNA play a role in translation, which is the process of protein synthesis. Translation requires three types of RNA: messenger RNA (mRNA), which ranges in length from a few hundred to many thousands of nucleotides; tRNA, which is 75 to 85 nucleotides long; and rRNA, which is 1,500 to 4,000 nucleotides long.

Molecules of mRNA, each of which contains a copy of at least one gene, are the intermediates between DNA and protein. These mRNA molecules bring the genetic code from the DNA, which is in the nucleus, to ribosomes, which are in the cytoplasm. They attach to the ribosomes and determine the order in which amino acids are assembled to synthesize a protein. Of the three types of RNA required for translation, mRNA molecules have the simplest structure.

Next, tRNA molecules function as adapters that help translate the nucleotide sequences in mRNA into amino acid sequences, so specific proteins can be constructed. There are many different types of tRNA, each of which is capable of binding to one of the twenty amino acids that are the building blocks of proteins.

Finally, rRNA molecules, which account for most of a ribosome's mass, are, according to recent experiments, the part of the ribosome responsible for linking amino acids into a growing protein chain. Ribosomes, the organelles that assemble a particular sequence of amino acids to form proteins, contain three or four different molecules of rRNA, along with at least fifty different proteins.

Both rRNA and tRNA are stable forms of RNA that last through several cell divisions. In contrast, mRNA is normally unstable, with a lifetime that can be as short as a few minutes. This instability has probably evolved because it lets cells quickly stop synthesizing proteins that are no longer needed. In some cases, enzymes called ribonucleases (RNases) actively degrade certain mRNA molecules. For example, mRNA that encodes a particular protein regulating the cell cycle is degraded when the protein has carried out its function.

In certain cells, mRNA can exist in a stable form for decades. When egg cells are formed, for example, some of the mRNA in the cells is associated with "storage proteins" and lasts until after the eggs are fertilized. During embryonic development, this maternal mRNA becomes activated for translation and associates with translating ribosomes. It usually decays after it has been used to produce a certain amount of protein.

Additional topics

Medicine EncyclopediaGenetics in Medicine - Part 4RNA - Molecular Structure, Synthesis, Function, Less Common Types Of Rna