Name: John Rinn
Affiliation: Harvard University/Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
John Rinn has a long history of bucking convention. Growing up, skateboarding and snowboarding took precedence over school—he attended four high schools in four years, only graduating because his mother promised him a car. He went to college at the University of Minnesota because it seemed like an excuse to party and hit the slopes. But bedridden with a snowboarding injury after his sophomore year, Rinn had a revelation, inspired by the uncompromising architect Howard Roark in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. “What could I do that I cared that much about?” he asked himself. He began immersing himself in biology classes and realized that he not only had an aptitude for science, but he actually enjoyed it. He pulled mostly A’s and soon discovered the thing that would inspire his future career: RNA.
Science hasn’t dimmed Rinn’s rebellious side. He’s already upending the way biologists think about the human genome. Though similar to DNA, RNA has always been considered DNA’s helper; its best-known job is turning genes into proteins. Some of it was even thought to have no function at all, the equivalent of cellular junk. But in 2003, as a graduate student at Yale, Rinn discovered thousands of new types of RNA, called large intervening non-coding RNAs, or LINCs, and later proved that they play more than just a supporting role in regulating genes—they appear to direct the entire show. At the time, the notion was considered contentious, even ridiculous. “It was the same thing again—‘what you’re passionate about is stupid,’ ” Rinn says. “Classic science was not ready for this. Almost nobody was ready for this.”
He silenced his critics in 2007 when he showed that one of the LINCs serves a vital function in human cells. He dubbed it HOTAIR, a wry nod to the fact that so many scientists thought his field of research was full of it. The molecule delivers proteins to a crucial cluster of genes and helps regulate immune response, cancer growth, and fat and stem-cell production, among other things. “If we can unravel their code, we can engineer these molecules to bend the genome to our will,” Rinn says. “That would be a totally new facet for therapeutics and human health.”
High-functioning RNA isn’t his only discovery. In 2006, he answered a long-standing biological question: How do cells know where to go and how to behave? By comparing the genes expressed in cells around the body, he uncovered a kind of genetic ZIP code that orients and redirects cells.
He’s still hunting for LINCs, hopeful that they will reveal cellular secrets. Ultimately, Rinn loves genetics for the same reason he loves snowboarding: “I want to take something old, twist it, and get something new out of it.” —Melinda Wennersingle page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.