RNA interference (RNAi) or double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) is a system within living cells that helps to control which genes are active and how active they are. siRNAs were first discovered by David Baulcombe's group in Norwich, England, as part of post-transcriptional gene silencing (PTGS) in plants1 and later independently identified in wide variety of eukaryotic organisms. These dsRNAs are rapidly processed into short RNA duplexes of 21 to 28 nucleotides in length, which then guide the recognition and ultimately the cleavage of complementary single-stranded RNAs, such as messenger RNAs or viral genomic/antigenomic RNA (Fig. 1). According to their origin or function, naturally occurring small RNA have been described: short interfering RNAs (siRNA), repeat-associated short interfering RNA (rasiRNA or shRNA) and microRNA (miRNA). RNA interference has many biological functions – it is a vital part of the immune response against viruses and also down regulates gene expression by transcriptional silencing of genes or upregulates promoting by RNA activation. Finally, artificial introduction of long dsRNA or siRNA has been adopted as a tool to inactivate gene expression, both in cultured cells and in living organisms.
A biochemical understanding of the RNAi pathway was crucial to realizing that dsRNAs shorter than 30 base pairs (bp) could be used to trigger an RNAi response in mammals. Tuschl and colleagues showed that transfection of mammalian cells with short RNAs could induce the sequence-specific RNAi pathway, and so overcame the barrier to the use of RNAi as a genetic tool in mammals2. The impetus to use siRNAs and other small RNAs in mammalian cells also came from the long-standing view that protein kinase receptor (PKR) activation3 and similar responses were not effectively triggered by short dsRNAs. Following the initial reports, it took a remarkably short period of time for siRNAs triggers to be adopted as a standard component of the molecular biology toolkit. siRNAs can be introduced into mammalian cells using a variety of standard transfection methods. The strength and duration of the silencing response is determined by several factors: on a population basis, the silencing response is affected mainly by the overall efficiency of transfection, which can be addressed by optimizing conditions. In each cell, silencing depends on the amount of siRNA that is delivered and on the potential of each siRNA to suppress its target, or its potency. Even a relatively impotent siRNA can silence its target provided that sufficient quantities of the siRNA are delivered. However, essentially ‘forcing’ the system by delivering large amounts of reagent is likely to lead to numerous undesired effects.