Humans, worms and flies are all completely different organisms and yet we have a more or less common set of genes.

Given that similar DNA blueprint, how do species develop such vast differences in physical shape, size, and complexity?

One so-called "central dogma" of molecular biology says that genetic information passes faithfully from genomic DNA to messenger RNA to the synthesis of proteins but a new study finds that such information can be significantly altered along the way by a variety of means, including by precision "editing" at the RNA stage to fine-tune the type of proteins that will be produced. 

RNA editing has been thought to be sparingly used, based on a limited number of studies in mammals and flies, but a new study by Marine Biological Laboratory researchers discovered the most prolific usage yet of RNA editing in the common squid, Doryteuthis pealeii, a behaviorally sophisticated marine organism that has long been prized for studies of the nervous system.

Doryteuthis pealeii is a prolific editor of genetic information, a new study finds. Credit: Elaine Bearer

By comparing DNA and RNA sequences from the squid brain, the team found that 60 percent of the RNA transcripts had been edited. (A transcript is a stretch of DNA transcribed into an RNA molecule.)

This is orders of magnitude more "recoding" of the genetic instructions than has been seen in any other species to date, says Joshua Rosenthal, a professor of neurobiology at the Universidad de Puerto Rico. The 57,000 recoding sites they found in the squid brain (as compared with 100 known recoding sites in humans and 600 in the fruit fly) created tremendous protein diversity, suggesting an important role for RNA editing in the brain physiology of the squid. It may, for example, enable squid to fine-tune its physiological response to environmental variables, such as changes in temperature, a hypothesis that Rosenthal will be exploring this summer at the MBL.

"In squid, RNA editing is so pervasive that the central dogma should be modified to include this process," Rosenthal says. "These results open the possibility that, in many organisms, extensive recoding is a common means of creating functional diversity."

Citation: Alon S et al (2015) The majority of transcripts in the squid nervous system are extensively recoded by A-to-I RNA editing. eLife 10.7554/eLife.05198