Faculty Member


David Bartel

David Bartel

Member, Whitehead Institute

Professor of Biology, MIT

Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute


Bartel Lab


We study microRNAs and other small RNAs that specify the destruction and/or translational repression of mRNAs. We also study mRNAs, focusing on their untranslated regions and poly(A) tails, and how these regions recruit and mediate regulatory processes.

Whitehead Member David Bartel has made major contributions to the understanding of the roles that ribonucleic acid (RNA) plays in contemporary biology and may have played in early evolution.

The Bartel lab was among those to report the existence of hundreds of tiny RNAs, known as microRNAs, which regulate the expression of protein-coding genes in animal and plant cells. They then developed, for both plants and animals, the methodology for reliably predicting which genes each microRNA regulates. Among other findings, their analyses indicate that most human protein-coding genes are targets of microRNAs. Their experiments following up on individual target interactions contributed to the understanding of the physiological functions of microRNAs, including how microRNAs play important roles in plant development and how the interaction between a human microRNA and one of its regulatory targets helps prevent human cancers.

The Bartel lab also determined the molecular consequences of microRNAs, showing that the microRNAs of animals predominantly act to destabilize the messenger RNAs (mRNAs) that they target. The known exception is in the early embryo, where microRNAs cause less protein to be made from the targeted messenger RNAs. The Bartel lab discovered a developmental transition in gene-regulatory regimes that explains this difference. In early embryos mRNAs with shorter tails are translated less efficiently than those with longer tails, whereas later in development mRNAs with shorter tails are no longer less efficiently translated and instead are more rapidly degraded.

While searching for additional microRNAs, the Bartel lab discovered other types of small regulatory RNAs, including "heterochromatic siRNAs,” which direct DNA silencing. The Bartel group also made significant contributions to the development of RNA interference (RNAi) as a tool for silencing gene expression. Important advances for the use of small interfering RNAs, which enabled RNAi to be used in mammalian cells, began in Bartel's laboratory.

In earlier work, Bartel and his colleagues investigated RNA's ability to catalyze reactions and studied how new RNA enzymes (ribozymes) emerge. The group created new ribozymes with enzymatic activities thought to have been required early in evolution, before the emergence of enzymes made of protein. For example, the researchers generated a ribozyme that synthesizes small pieces of RNA, supporting the idea of an "RNA world" during the early evolution of life that featured RNA self-replication.

Bartel joined Whitehead Institute in 1994 as a Whitehead Fellow, following the completion of his PhD at Harvard University. In 1996, he was appointed an Associate Member of Whitehead and assistant professor of biology at MIT. Bartel is now a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, a Member at Whitehead, and professor at MIT.

Selected achievements

  • Discovered the abundance of microRNAs, small RNA molecules that are important for gene regulation
  • Developed the methodology to accurately predict the regulatory targets of microRNAs in both plants and animals
  • Ascertained molecular consequences and biological roles of microRNA regulation, including how a microRNA helps prevent human cancer
  • Discovered heterochromatic siRNAs, which direct DNA silencing, and other types of small regulatory RNAs
  • Created ribozyme (RNA enzyme) that synthesizes pieces of RNA, bolstering the "RNA world" theory
  • AAAS Newcomb Cleveland Prize (2002)
  • NAS Molecular Biology Award (2005)
  • Institut de France Louis-D. Prize (2005)
  • Elected to the National Academy of Sciences (2011)

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