Why RNA, and Not DNA: How Viome Assesses Microbial Activity
As a health and wellness platform, how we generate our results is a common question among users and the public alike. If you’re considering changing your lifestyle to embrace a healthier diet, it’s important to find a reliable guide you can trust. This is why Viome has worked so hard to develop a novel and scientifically reliable way of analyzing your samples. When we embarked on this path, we sought to ensure we were using state-of-the-art technology. By combining innovative gut microbiome sequencing technology straight from the Los Alamos National Labs with a highly specialized machine-learning model, we’ve created one of the most advanced platforms to analyze your gut microbiome activity.
There are many things that set us apart from our competition, whether it be the advanced algorithms we use, our world-class team, or our determination to redefine the healthcare industry. This includes our technology– and why we choose to examine RNA over DNA.
The Truth About DNA
Most of us know what DNA is – “your genetic blueprint.” DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, seems like a mouthful, and the complexity of it doesn’t stop there. This extremely important genetic map was discovered by Swiss chemist Freidrich Meischer in the 1860’s, but it wasn’t until Watson and Crick discovered its double-helix shape in 1953 that things really took off.
A double-helix looks similar to a winding staircase held together by two railings. The stairs represent the joining of two nucleotide base pairs made up Adenine, Thymine, Guanine, or Cytosine. Adenine always pairs with Thymine, and Guanine always pairs with Cytosine. These “stairs” are held in place with two rigid backbone “railings” made of alternating phosphate and sugar residues. Every three “stairs” make up a code for a specific amino acid. When enough of these amino acids are grouped together, they create a “ gene ” that can then be used to map out and create a specific protein tasked with a job. These genes determine everything our cells are capable of doing and form the fundamentals of who we are. Throughout your life, your DNA remains the same. The DNA you were born with is the same DNA you die with, and every cell in your body contains the same double-helix blueprint. Understanding this, is at the very basics of understanding your genetics.
Although DNA can tell us a lot about who we are like our risk for certain genetic diseases - our environment and our diet influences our gene expression – or rather, which DNA “stairs” are routinely read and translated. Our DNA may stay consistent, but our cells are constantly reading out small segments of our DNA (or genes) to create proteins relative to what’s happening NOW. For example, when we have exhausted all our energy, gene expression for proteins that signal we need rest or sleep are increased. When we need more fuel, gene expression for proteins that help communicate hunger to our brain are increased. Once we have eaten, the gene expression of these proteins slows down, signaling to us we no longer need to satisfy our hunger. It’s a complex system, but at the heart of it – our gene expression dictates to us how we feel, how we function, and what we need at a day-to-day and even moment-to-moment level.
Where Does RNA Come into Play?
Which brings us back to RNA – what exactly is RNA and how does it relate to gene expression?
As mentioned, DNA is the double-helix blueprint of our genetics. When it comes time to “express a gene,” cellular mechanisms are triggered to copy certain pieces of DNA that code for a protein. Our DNA responds to these mechanisms by opening like a flower, splitting down the middle of the staircase. From here, replication begins – a process that includes enzymes that begin copying and linking new amino acids matched to one of the sides of the open DNA staircase. The copy only matches with one side of the DNA strand, making a single-stranded complement known as RNA, or ribonucleic acid. Once the replication process is done, the RNA strand is then sent to be “translated” and a new protein with a specific job is created.
This is why it is so important to examine RNA. Although our DNA may tell us what genes we have, there is no way to examine what genes are being used – and how frequently – without monitoring RNA levels. By assessing RNA, we have a window into what’s happening inside of us right now at a molecular level. When it comes to analyzing our gut microbiome, assessing the RNA produced by our gut microbes is just as important.
The What and the How
Bacteria, although different from human cells, are single-cell organisms that carry out tasks similar to each of our own cells. Just like us, they have their own DNA blueprint and express different genes based on their own environment. So, just like with humans, looking at the RNA they produce can also give us insight into what’s happening inside of them.
This is why Viome examines RNA (gene expression) in your gut microbiome. When your gut is healthy, the bacteria inside you create RNA that codes for proteins that function to promote wellness inside us. But, when your gut ecosystem is imbalanced, we can see how your gut microbes might be expressing RNA of genes that code for proteins that show harmful activities. It can also tell us more than just who is active, it can tell us what they’re actually doing - giving us a better idea of their role in our health.
If you send your sample to a company that tests for DNA, they might send back results to you that show you all sorts of microbes – many that may not even be living inside you anymore. DNA doesn’t discriminate between living and dead organisms, it’s simply there. Without assessing gene expression, your results may show an inaccurate depiction of who’s living inside your gut. By sequencing RNA and assessing gene expression, we are able to see who’s alive, and what they’re doing.
Giving You the Results That Matter
Making changes to your diet to improve your health is a tricky task. If you’re trying to incorporate nutritional recommendations that aren’t specific to you, optimizing your health may seem a lot like you’re feeling around in the dark. Instead, it’s important to understand that what’s happening inside you is completely unique to you. The activities of your gut microbes and the state of your gut ecosystem requires individualized insight. Don’t leave the state of your health in the hands of those unwilling to examine what’s actually happening inside you. Instead, get results from the people who understand there is more to your health than just genetics. Be sure your microbiome test analyzes the RNA (gene expression) of your gut microbes so that you can get real, actionable recommendations to improve your health, such as a Viome Intelligence test.
When it’s time for you to retest, you can see how your microbial RNA has been influenced by your dietary changes and assess the next steps for your nutrition plan. You might see that your food viruses are gone, which means, depending on where that particular food ends up on your list, it could be safe to reintroduce that food into your diet. You may see some of your health scores improve. You may be thankful to find that blueberries are back on your enjoy list. The important thing to remember is that your body and microbiome determine if a food is healthy for you right now or not. When you think of it like this, it makes sense to consult your gut before planning your next meals!