Noncoding RNA – genetic junk or jewel?


Professor John Mattick

16 April 2010

According to past interpretations, most of the DNA we inherit from our parents is just accumulated evolutionary debris.

But 2010 NHMRC Australia Fellow, Professor John Mattick from the University of Queensland, has an alternative view. He believes this material might be some sort of hidden, noncoding RNA-driven information system that is vitally important to human development and brain function.

Here Prof Mattick explains to Carolyn Norrie how his Australia Fellowship gives him the freedom and flexibility to pursue this alternative hypothesis while helping build health research capacity for the nation.

Download this podcast

Transcript of podcast

Voice-over: Welcome to this National Health and Medical Research Council podcast. Our podcasts aim to keep you in touch with major health and medical research issues and the people who shape them.

Introduction: Hello, I’m Carolyn Norrie and I’m talking to one of NHMRC’s 2010 Australia Fellows, Professor John Mattick of the University of Queensland.

Interviewer: John, congratulations on your Fellowship.

Prof Mattick: Thank you Carolyn.

Interviewer: John, your research looks at the role of DNA and RNA in human development and particularly in brain functioning. Tell me why this interests you?

Prof Mattick: It interests me because we really know very little about it to begin with. My particular interest is the very strange observations that have emerged over the last 30 years progressively that most of the human genome, most of the DNA we inherit from our parents, does not code for conventional genes. And the usual interpretation of that has been that this material is some sort of junk or evolutionary debris that’s just accumulated over time. But the thing that intrigued me about it was that it is actually expressed as RNA in apparently a dynamically-regulated fashion during development and particularly in the brain. So I started to entertain the alternative hypothesis or idea that this material, which had been dismissed as junk, might be some sort of hidden information system which was important to our development and to the function of the brain. So I’ve been pursuing that thesis for some time now and the evidence is really accumulating rapidly that that may well be the case.

Interviewer: If you do find that your hypothesis is correct, how will that change our understanding of the role of DNA and RNA?

Prof Mattick: Oh it will change it totally, because the traditional view of genetic programming in all organisms, not just humans, is that genes encode proteins that fulfill different functions in the cell, such as transporting oxygen or, you know, energy metabolism or whatever. This would show that there is an entire, in fact huge additional layer of information which is required to deploy these proteins in increasingly sophisticated ways during our development and in our brain. So it would suggest first of all that the human genome is a very, very sophisticated information suite and that most of the information is to do with regulating our development and cognition, and therefore that variations in that information may well – almost certainly in fact – be responsible for not only differences between individuals and species, but also our idiosyncrasies with respect to susceptibilities to common diseases.

Interviewer: Fascinating stuff, isn’t it?

Prof Mattick: I think it’s, I think it’s marvelous and if it’s correct I think this may well be the biggest advance in our understanding of human genetics since, you know, since the double helix. And I mean that in the sense of actually moving into a different awareness of the range and sophistication of the information that’s really required to put a human together – somebody who walks and talks – that’s a marvelous thing.

Interviewer: It is indeed. Now with the Fellowship, where will it allow you to take your work?

Prof Mattick: I can’t say how delighted I am to have received this Fellowship, because – not only because it’s prestigious and it’s a very competitive scheme – but mainly because it gives me the freedom to pursue these ideas in a very flexible way. Some of the things for example that we’ve published in the last year or two, we hadn’t thought of you know two years ago. And so the pace of research in this area is so fast and the ability to follow your nose and follow ideas is critically important to being able to make progress at the leading edge, so it’s given me the freedom and the security to really attack this problem in an unrestrained way. I just can’t say how important I think this is for this type of research.

Interviewer: How do you think your Fellowship will contribute to building health research capacity in Australia?

Prof Mattick: Oh enormously. That’s the other great benefit of it. The secure package of funding that I’ve been awarded for the next five years allows me to support, what in my case and I’m sure in many other cases, is an extremely talented group of PhD students and particularly Postdoctoral Fellows who are beginning to establish their own track records and independence and this gives them an umbrella under which to do that. And in fact in some cases they already have been awarded pre-development awards, more junior ones from the NHMRC or other agencies. So in terms of building capacity in a team of people who have got a secure footing to develop their own careers, and these are very talented people, I think is superb. It also gives me the opportunity and flexibility – to all of us really in the team – to interact with groups around Australia and internationally to build collaborations, which we’re doing to great effect. It’s just wonderful, we’ve just had an important paper accepted in a high profile journal in collaboration with a group in Sydney. We’re working with groups in Melbourne, Western Australia, as well as in the United States, Japan, Europe, etcetera. Wonderful.

Interviewer: Accepting an Australia Fellowship can mean having to relinquish certain other roles. What’s your take on that?

Prof Mattick: I think it’s critical. To operate at this level, both in terms of hopefully the quality of the research and the degree of international competition that you face at the leading edge, I think it’s essential, in fact liberating not to have any distracting major other responsibilities. A few years ago I relinquished the directorship of my institute, which is now I’m pleased to say a very fine institute, simply because I think, I thought that I wanted to concentrate on what I regarded as an extremely important area of research that could have very wide ramifications. And you know those sorts of jobs are important, but I really am delighted that I’ve been relieved of those responsibilities and I can really focus all of my time and all of my energies on the research and in nurturing my PhD students and Postdoctoral Fellows along with it.

Interviewer: Professor John Mattick thank you very much.

Prof Mattick: My pleasure Carolyn, thank you.

Voice-Over: This podcast was brought to you by the National Health and Medical Research Council, working to build a healthy Australia. You’ll find more information about this and other health and medical research issues on our website at