I can depend on my body. My muscles contract when I want them to — to carry me up mountains and down ski slopes, to pull my kayak paddle through the water, and move my hands across piano keys. When I drink my favorite red wine, my liver metabolizes the alcohol, and my digestive system handles all the carbonara I throw at it and then asks for more. My brain secretes adrenaline that protects me in dangerous situations and serotonin that reminds me how good it is to be alive.
My muscles, metabolism, and mind do all the things I expect them to, and my body (and yours) is constantly performing a near-limitless number of other functions as well. It’s all thanks to a tiny, immensely powerful molecule you may have heard a lot about recently: mRNA.
Every bodily function, both voluntary and involuntary, seen and unseen, happens because messenger RNA — commonly shortened to mRNA — is at work in our cells.
At the most essential level of cellular function, mRNA is the body’s Rosetta stone.
“It’s involved in every process,” says Rob Swanda, a fifth-year biochemistry PhD candidate at Cornell University. “Cell signaling, the production of hormones and every enzyme in your body—mRNA is just as critical as any other genetic material you have to allow you to be yourself and do what you want to do.”
But long before it was a buzzword and a beacon of hope for the end of a global pandemic, mRNA was quietly going about its job inside every single cell in every living organism.
What does mRNA do exactly, and why is it so important?
To understand that, you first have to understand the role of proteins. Often called the “workhorses” of the cell, proteins carry out most cellular functions. For example, enzymes — which the body uses to build muscle, break down toxins, and metabolize nutrients — are proteins. Many hormones…