I don’t remember us discussing RNAi in my biology classes in college, and that wasn’t so long ago. The field has bloomed in recent years though, and just about every issue of Science and Nature reports new findings based on the use of interference RNA to block the action of some specific gene.
The process seems to have evolved as an anti-viral strategy, in which special chunks of double-stranded RNA (which is usually single-stranded) can block the production of certain proteins. The Prize winners, Fire and Mello, showed how this process works in Caenorhabditis elegans, a roundworm that is commonly used in developmental biology.
It turns out that the same process occurs in plants and animals, and has an important role regulating cell growth and death, as well as blocking viral infections.
The implications for the discovery are wide-ranging and remain to be fully worked out.
I’ve tacked an animation from Nature Reviews below the fold illustrating how this works.
The basic idea of the animation is that a system of enzymes exist to break RNA into small chunks given a matching piece of RNA. That system of enzymes has become elaborated by evolution in different groups of species. This is a powerful technique. It shows how quickly a good idea can be taken up by scientists when it yields results and offers clear hypotheses.
It hardly seems worth mentioning how distant this is from the way that IDolators envision science.