What is mRNA?

mRNA, or messenger RNA, is a molecule involved in the creation of proteins. mRNA carries a “blueprint” that dictates which proteins to make.

Key Takeaways

  • Discovered in 1961, mRNA is made from DNA (think fraternal twins) and carries the code to create proteins.

  • mRNA is a specific type of RNA and can’t create proteins on its own; its buddies tRNA and rRNA help out, too.

  • mRNA has become a recent hot topic due to its role in the Covid-19 vaccine

What is MRNA

How is mRNA different from DNA?

mRNA is created from DNA, but has a few key differences:

  1. DNA is made up of four chemical bases: Adenine (‘A’), Thymine (‘T’), Guanine (‘G’) and Cytosine (‘C’), while RNA swaps Thymine for Uracil (‘U’). 

  2. DNA stores codes made up of different sequences of A, T, G and G). mRNA reads these codes and turns it into proteins when needed. 

  3. Due to their different functions, mRNA and DNA are found in different parts of the cell.

Why is mRNA important?

mRNA is just as important as DNA! Without it, your genetic code would never be used to create new proteins, and your body wouldn’t be able to perform day-to-day functions. 

A hot topic: mRNA Vaccines

mRNA can be delivered via a vaccine. This can ‘turn on’ immune response in your body to create the proteins that are encoded in the mRNA, which then help prevent and fight certain diseases and viruses, including COVID-19. 

mRNA vaccines may be more attractive than traditional vaccines. Traditional vaccines use a live, weakened version of a virus or dead version of a virus. These take a long time to produce because developers need to grow the actual virus. On the other hand, mRNA vaccines are faster and cheaper to produce and are more scalable.

A Quick Lesson on mRNA Vaccines

The coronavirus has a unique protein on its surface called a “spike protein.” Scientists created the mRNA that instructs your cells to make the spike protein. This mRNA is what’s in the vaccine. When you get the vaccine, this mRNA will travel into your cells and instruct them to make this spike protein. The spike protein will sit on the surface of your cells, allowing your immune system to recognize this foreign protein and remember it as “bad” by producing antibodies. Antibodies are proteins used to recognize and kill foreign invaders. 

To visualize, imagine your immune system taking a picture of this spike protein and then sending the picture with the words “WANTED” to the rest of your body. Now, your whole body knows not to let this virus in — no more games. So, this spike protein is in your immune system’s memory. If you do contract the coronavirus, your body will be prepared to fight it.


Outside the Huddle


Reviewed by Geetika Rao, MPH | Edited by Sitara Shirol, Nidhi Mahagaokar and Jared Dashevsky, M.Eng. | Fact checked by Julia Radossich