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New national report co-authored by Brown professor offers RNA research roadmap

NASEM committee outlines priorities for RNA sequencing, with implications for Brown

<p>The report outlines a 15-year roadmap to sequence any RNA molecule and calls for increased investments in RNA research and infrastructure.</p>

The report outlines a 15-year roadmap to sequence any RNA molecule and calls for increased investments in RNA research and infrastructure.

On Thursday, a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine committee released a report on sequencing RNA modifications. 

Professor of Molecular Biology, Cell Biology and Biochemistry Juan Alfonzo, who leads Brown’s RNA Center, was a member of the committee that authored the report. 

RNA, or ribonucleic acid, is a molecule essential to life —  it plays several intermediary roles in translating information from genetic code into proteins, a major building block of all living organisms. Modifications to the chemical structure of RNA have important roles across biology and medicine.

Titled “Charting a Future for Sequencing RNA and Its Modifications,” the report outlines a 15-year roadmap to sequence any RNA molecule and calls for increased investments in RNA research and infrastructure. 


Specifically, the committee recommends the creation of an oversight body to help “catalyze and coordinate efforts” in sequencing the epitranscriptome — the set of all RNA molecules and modifications. The report also includes recommendations to expand RNA-related educational initiatives, investments in sequencing technology and the creation of databases. 

Academics have likened the project to the Human Genome Project — a scientific feat that sequenced all of human DNA in 13 years. The Human Genome Project has been credited with advancing human health and scientific discovery.

“There has been no question in the minds of scientists that direct sequencing of all RNA is necessary to advance medicine and science,” Mukesh K. Jain, senior vice president for health affairs and dean of medicine and biological sciences at Brown, wrote in an email to The Herald. 

“What we have lacked is an organized roadmap for an undertaking that will likely be bigger and more expensive than the Human Genome Project,” he added.

Brown is no stranger to RNA research. RNA sequencing appeared as an initiative in the University’s 2022 Operational Plan for Investing in Research. In fall 2023, Brown opened its RNA center. 

The Human RNome project, an international initiative to sequence the epitranscriptome, held its first meeting at Brown this January. Currently, technology and funding have limited RNA sequencing efforts — challenges that the NASEM report looks to help overcome. 

In the coming weeks, the NASEM committee will meet with government officials to garner support, according to the Warren Alpert Foundation, which helped fund the report.

Jain noted the need for partnerships between public and private stakeholders.

“It will take the combined forces of government, private industry and academia to achieve these goals,” he wrote. “The impact will be far reaching, improving not only health and medicine, but also industry and agriculture, biosecurity and manufacturing.”

“For Brown, this effort could lead to new grant funding for RNA researchers,” Jain added. “We have plans to recruit additional researchers who study different aspects of RNA and its modifications, and increased grant funding through the National Institutes of Health would be critical to support their work.”


“It positions Brown in a unique place to lead the modification efforts,” Alfonzo said. “The investment here is significant.”

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Ryan Doherty

Ryan Doherty is a Section Editor covering faculty, higher education and science & research. He is a sophomore concentrating in chemistry and economics who likes to partially complete crosswords in his free time.

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