RNA in Food Alters Metabolism

In what I would consider a bombshell finding, researchers have demonstrated a new way that food can influence our metabolism. For the first time, researchers have identified microRNAs that originated in grains of rice circulating in the blood serum of research subjects. MicroRNAs are short sequences of RNA that can bind to messenger RNA sequences and cause their degradation, thus influencing gene expression. From the article:

Like vitamins, minerals and other essential nutrients derived from food sources, plant miRNAs may serve as a novel functional component of food and make a critical contribution to maintaining and shaping animal body structure and function.

Not only did the researchers simply identify miRNAs from plants in human blood plasma and serum, they also demonstrated a physiological effect in a mouse. Using bioinformatics, they identified a number of candidate targets that the specific miRNA may interact with. One of the candidates is involved in cholesterol metabolism, and by feeding the rice to mice, they were able to observe a change in cholesterol processing within 3 hours of feeding.

There are so many implications to this finding, I’m not sure where to start. One of the first thoughts that came to mind was the ongoing discussion surrounding organic foods. I have always been of the opinion that there could be only slight advantages, if any at all, to eating organic fruits and vegetables in terms of the actual food quality itself, assuming any potentially harmful substances had been removed from conventionally grown produce. But wouldn’t it stand to reason that there could be significant differences between the microRNAs actively expressed in organic crops compared to conventional ones? And if that’s the case, their influence on human health could be dramatically different.

I guess this same research group had shown several years ago that microRNAs that are secreted from cells can circulate in blood and influence expression elsewhere in the body, so in some ways this work is following on the same idea. Depending on where this work goes from here, and how wide-ranging the implications turn out to be, this seems like the kind of research that can attract serious attention from the Nobel folks. Makes me wonder why it’s in Cell Research and not the flagship of the same publisher, Nature.

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