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Tenure awarded to RNA researcher Thomas Tuschl

Thomas Tuschl, a Rockefeller University biochemist interested in the mechanisms by which RNA can regulate genes, has been awarded tenure and promoted to professor. The university’s board of trustees approved the appointment earlier this year.

“Rockefeller is known for its bold and innovative research and Tom has not only flourished in this environment but has become an influential leader and pioneer in his field,” says Rockefeller University’s president Paul Nurse.

Tuschl, who received his Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Regensburg, in Germany, came to Rockefeller as an associate professor in 2003, following a postdoc at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a position as junior investigator at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Goettingen, Germany. He is head of the Laboratory of RNA Molecular Biology at Rockefeller and is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator.

Tuschl’s research focuses on RNA interference (RNAi), the process by which small RNA molecules interfere with gene expression. For many years, RNAs were simply seen as vehicles that transport genetic information from the nucleus to the site of protein synthesis, but it has become obvious that particular small RNA molecules can regulate this process in a gene-specific manner.

Working with Drosophila melanogaster, Tuschl and his colleagues showed that long double-stranded RNAs generate short double-stranded RNAs of 19 to 23 base-pair length called small interfering RNAs (siRNAs), and that these short molecules mediate RNAi gene silencing. Tuschl then became the first to show that this gene-silencing machinery exists in mammalian cells, a discovery that helped create an entire industry of producing small RNAs and exploring their therapeutic applications.

Once Tuschl and his colleagues saw that this small RNA machinery could selectively turn off genes in mammals, including humans, they further dissected its mechanism of action by identifying which proteins these small RNAs recognize. Building off their work and others, they then identified the now well-known molecules called microRNAs, the natural small RNA occupants of the RNA silencing machinery, and ultimately went on to create a microRNA atlas that defines microRNA gene expression in both healthy and diseased tissues.

“It was a very intense time in the field,” says Tuschl. “It was very competitive, trying to get the first key findings defining the biochemistry of RNA interference and understand how small RNAs could connect with diseases and be put to use clinically.”

Researchers, including Tuschl, have since discovered some 500 microRNAs in human cells that have shown to play key roles in a host of diseases ranging from Alzheimer’s disease to cancer. “We now believe that the RNA interference caused by microRNAs is actually one of the most important mechanisms in gene expression,” says Tuschl. “A more precise understanding of the role of RNAs in the cell could also provide a novel approach to new therapies.”

Prior to his tenure appointment Tuschl has received numerous awards, including the Wiley Prize in Biomedical Sciences from the Wiley Foundation and the 2003 AAAS Newcomb Cleveland Prize for an outstanding paper published in the journal Science. His most recent honors include the Max Delbruck Medal and the Karl Heinz Beckurtz Award in 2007 and the Ernst Jung Prize for Medicine in 2008.

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