Over the last decade, long noncoding RNAs (lncRNAs) have emerged as a fundamental molecular class whose members play pivotal roles in the regulation of the genome. The observation of pervasive transcription of mammalian genomes in the early 2000s sparked a revolution in the understanding of information flow in eukaryotic cells and the incredible flexibility and dynamic nature of the transcriptome. As a molecular class, distinct loci yielding lncRNAs are set to outnumber those yielding mRNAs. However, like many important discoveries, the road leading to uncovering this diverse class of molecules that act through a remarkable repertoire of mechanisms, was not a straight one. The same characteristic that most distinguishes lncRNAs from mRNAs, i.e. their developmental-stage, tissue-, and cell-specific expression, was one of the major impediments to their discovery and recognition as potentially functional regulatory molecules. With growing numbers of lncRNAs being assigned to biological functions, the specificity of lncRNA expression is now increasingly recognized as a characteristic that imbues lncRNAs with great potential as biomarkers and for the development of highly targeted therapeutics. Here we review the history of lncRNA research and how technological advances and insight into biological complexity have gone hand-in-hand in shaping this revolution. We anticipate that as increasing numbers of these molecules, often described as the dark matter of the genome, are characterized and the structure-function relationship of lncRNAs becomes better understood, it may ultimately be feasible to decipher what these non-(protein)-coding genes encode. This article is part of a Special Issue entitled: Clues to long noncoding RNA taxonomy1, edited by Dr. Tetsuro Hirose and Dr. Shinichi Nakagawa.
Keywords: Expression; Long noncoding RNA; Technology; Transcriptomics.
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