Nayef Jarrous and Sidney Altman blaze new trails in the study of RNA

Porf. Sidney Altman

When Nayef Jarrous was a college student at Hebrew University – pursuing no less than three science degrees – he was intrigued and excited about the possibility of working with one of his heroes, Nobel Prize Winner Sidney Altman.

For Jarrous, that possibility became a reality – and much more. Jarrous eventually went to Yale to study with Altman, and thanks in part to continuing BSF grants, they have continued working together for almost 20 years.

Jarrous was born in Shfaram, Israel, into a Christian Arab family whose parents were both teachers. As an Israeli, he became aware of how prestigious a BSF grant is to Israeli researchers, and he was eager to apply after he finished his post-doctoral training at Yale.

“BSF funding is well-known for new Israeli faculty members, so back then I asked Sid to have a joint BSF grant, a request that he immediately agreed on,” Jarrous said. “I am fortunate to have Sid, my post-doc mentor, as my partner for so many years, learning from him about science, ethics and writing grants in general.”

Prof. Nayef Jarrous

Jarrous is currently a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Altman is a professor emeritus at Yale. They both specialize in ribonucleic acid (RNA) biology. RNA is a chain of cells that processes protein. It is one of three major macromolecules that are essential for all known forms of life. RNAs have the ability to dramatically modify and diversify the proteins produced by DNA. As a result, RNA study can have major implications in many areas, including understanding and treatment of diseases such as cancer.

Altman is a pioneer in RNA biology. In 1989, he shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Thomas R. Cech for their discoveries, independent of each other, that RNA can initiate some biological reactions, acting as a biocatalyst and seemingly playing the role of a protein enzyme. This overturned the established scientific understanding that RNA acts only as a carrier of genetic information and challenged basic biological tenets on the origin of life.

Since Altman and Cech released their findings, RNA biology has exploded in popularity, with scientists and researchers discovering dozens of previously unknown RNA molecules. Jarrous is one of the scientists inspired by Atlman’s and Cech’s discoveries.

“Thanks in part to the discoveries made by Sidney Altman and Thomas Cech, I became fascinated by the structure and flexibility of multifaceted RNAs and decided to do my doctoral thesis and postdoctoral stint on RNA. In fact, after decades of extensive research of RNA and based on new findings that reveal that most of the human genome is vastly transcribed to noncoding RNAs of unknown function, many scientists now are convinced that we are living in a modern ‘RNA World’, in which RNA is implicated in every fundamental biological process, from replication and translation in the cell to growth, differentiation and development of the entire organism,” Jarrous said.

Altman and Jarrous’s current BSF-funded project (being conducted with the assistance of Prof. Venkat Gopalan of Ohio State University) focuses on RNase P, an enzyme that is essential for viability of all life forms. In human cells, RNase P is a large complex, consisting of the RNA enzyme and at least 10 distinct protein subunits. In this current study, Altman, Jarrous and Gopalan are exploring the molecular mechanisms through which RNase P acts in transcription and processing of tRNA in cells and in cell-free systems.

Altman and Jarrous have received four BSF grants since 2001. Their previous studies have already yielded promising results. They have discovered that in humans, RNase P has a novel role in transcription of a large set of genes that are essential for the growth and proliferation of all human cells.

“The BSF grants have been very critical to my career as an independent scientist, enabling the continuation of my post-doc research on human RNase P at Hebrew University. This made my scientific and academic progress much smoother than it would have been otherwise,” Jarrous said.

Altman has been impressed with Jarrous ever since Jarrous studied at Yale.

“I recognized Nayef Jarrous’ talents when he worked for me as a postdoc, and I am proud that he has done so well,” Altman said.

Just as Altman once mentored Jarrous, the BSF grants give Jarrous opportunities to mentor Hebrew University students who are researchers on the RNase P project.

“He brings a vigorous approach to his work, and I have seen him instill this in his group in Israel,” Altman said. “In science, hard work is never a problem and is always important. Nayef is well aware of the ramifications of the RNase P project, and he makes sure his team is aware of them as well.”