The RNA Society of Japan

RNA as an Idea, Culture, and Way of Life

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President

 My name is Nakagawa at Hokkaido University, and I have been nominated as the President of the Japanese RNA Society for the 12th term. Considering the long and deep history of RNA research in Japan originating from the early days of molecular biology, my career in this field is still young. Although my research experience may not be enough to overview the entire field, I will do my best to promote further advancement of this society and the dissemination of RNA research.

 There is something magical about the word "RNA". Among the three biopolymers constituting the Central Dogma, only RNA fits well when followed by the word "Biology". In fact, as far as I know, there are no laboratories named "DNA Biology" or "Protein Biology", but "RNA Biology Laboratory" can be found everywhere in the world. We can feel a strange sense of unity when we get together under the keyword RNA, even when coming from diverse research areas and engaged in completely different types of project. One could perhaps say that RNA is not just a simple word designating a biochemical substance, but it also contains an idea, a culture, and even a way of life.

 In these difficult times of disease and war, a certain melancholy is inevitable. Nevertheless, some major breakthroughs brought about by the RNA research community in the last couple of years bring us solace. First of all, mRNA vaccines provided hope to the end the hopeless situation, and made everyone in this country recognize the word “RNA”. The invention of the mRNA vaccine proved that there is no such thing as “useless” basic research, and even if there was, it may simply be because the application is still unknown at that point in time. This may be a Copernican turnaround for some basic researchers who tend to proudly say, "My research has no use in real life". We also see outbreaks of new research field especially from the latest generation of RNA researchers who are collaborating with researchers in the field of bioinformatics. This was made possible by the spread of deep sequencing technologies, that have now become almost as ordinary as PCR. The advances in genome editing using CRISPR-RNA/Cas has made it possible to easily undergo projects that were once nothing more than a dream at the individual laboratory level. We also cannot miss emerging technologies such as custom CRISPR(i/a) screening and deep mutagenesis, which were enabled by large-scale nucleic acid synthesis technology. Finally, we are enthralled by the revolution in structural biology brought by AlphaFold2, as well as the explosion of the biology of phase separation, which originated from studies on RNA and intrinsically disordered proteins. We are living in a sort of Cambrian explosion of RNA research and as researchers, we are truly blessed to be the witness of this exciting age.

 During this golden age for RNA studies, what I believe is the most important for RNA researchers in Japan is the internationalization of their research activities. Although there are many excellent RNA researchers, including members of RNA society of Japan, they constitute only a small fraction of the world's population of RNA researchers. In many cases, if we consider only core subfields, there are only a few PIs if we limit ourselves to Japan. In fact, my field of expertise is lncRNA, and we only have a few oral presentations on lncRNA at the annual meetings of the RNA Society of Japan. On the other hand, there were more than 300 researchers working on lncRNAs when I participated in an international meeting. I cannot explain how happy I was to be able to talk about lncRNAs for three days and nights, an experience that is hardly possible within the research community in Japan. The venue is like a group of “otaku” gathered at the Comiket convention, where researchers sharing their minor interests have a deep discussion with emotions running high. It is a strange feeling, but under such circumstances, it feels like talking with old friends who together survived a hard time, even after having just met. We can easily overcome the language barrier when we share core interests. This is definitely a precious experience, especially for early-career scientists, one that is expected to contribute to their bright future. To promote these opportunities, the RNA Society Japan has provided fellowships for young researchers to support their participation in overseas meetings over the past years, and we would like to further expand such fellowships in the future. In addition, online meetings have become widespread, and it has become much easier to communicate with overseas researchers. It would be a shame not to take advantage of this; however, differences in time zones are much more difficult to overcome than physical distance. Therefore, we are planning to have regular online meetings, independently of the annual meeting, where researchers from countries located in similar time zone, including Japan, China, Korea, Australia, and Singapore, can get together. The number of people who can give a talk at these meetings might still be limited, but we are also planning to set up a "meet the speakers" session where participants can have a poster discussion with senior speakers during the post-meeting social time, on a first-come first served basis. We hope these activities will help promoting the presence of RNA research in Asia.

 While promoting these activities for internationalization, we will carefully consider the language used at the annual meeting, which is a once-in-a-year valuable opportunity for Japanese researchers to meet face-to-face. It is true that the number of international students and post-doctoral fellows from overseas continues to increase, but it is also true that more than 95% of the general participants are members whose native language is Japanese. We all know that English is the official language in science, but we also have to admit that many of Japanese researchers and students are not good at English despite their great ability in science. Thus, it is difficult to have a deep discussion in English especially when we talk about complex matters outside the field of our expertise. Furthermore, we cannot overlook the risk that Japanese researchers in related fields may hesitate to participate in our annual meeting if the official language is English, even though such inter-field communication is key to the future of science. Japan is one of a few countries where we can discuss science in the native language, which is not at all a matter of course. The RNA Society Annual Meeting has traditionally been held at a single venue, where all of us listen to talks from various fields and share the same message. This is a great advantage of our society. In my personal point of view, internationalization of the society does not necessarily means face-to-face annual meeting in Japan in English. We will soon conduct a survey on this important issue and discuss it at the general assembly in the Annual Meeting.

 Although we still cannot be optimistic for the number of infected people, we are beginning to restore our previous research activities. I am very much looking forward to seeing the friends and colleagues at the coming Annual Meeting at Kyoto, and to hearing unexpected research stories from the rising stars who will join our annual meeting for the first time. I would like to express my best gratitude to Kanai-san and the organizing committee of the last RNA Society Japan annual meeting in Tsuruoka, as well as the former President Tsutomu-Suzuki-san and committee members, who kept up the powerful activity of this society under the long and difficult times of Covid-19.

April 2021

Shinichi Nakagawa

President

(I thank Dr. Josephine Galipon at Keio University for English editing.)

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