V is for valine – VARS mutations in epileptic encephalopathy

Transfer RNAs. A critical step in translating a cDNA into proteins involves transfer RNAs (tRNAs) that deliver a specific amino acid to the ribosome based on a specific codon in the messenger RNA. Thereby, tRNAs establish the physical link between the mRNA and the amino acid sequence of the growing protein, an essential cellular function. In order for tRNAs to be loaded with the appropriate amino acids, the organism has developed enzymes specific for the individual amino acids that are referred to as tRNA ligases or, more precisely, aminoacyl tRNA synthetases (aaRS). Despite the ubiquitous role of aaRS in the cell, pathogenic variants in genes coding for specific aaRS result primarily in neurological phenotypes, ranging from peripheral neuropathy to early-onset epileptic encephalopathies. In two recent back-to-back publications, bi-allelic pathogenic variants in VARS are described as a novel cause for epileptic encephalopathy, adding VARS to the list of aaRS genes linked to human disease and solving an almost decade-old mystery. Continue reading

QARS mutations, tRNA, and neurodegeneration with migrating seizures

Q for glutamine. Transfer RNAs (tRNAs) are small adaptor molecules that match a nucleotide sequence to a given amino acid during protein translation. After unloading their amino acid payload, tRNAs are recharged with new amino acids through specific tRNA synthetases. Q is the official letter for the amino acid glutamine, and its respective tRNA synthetase is glutaminyl-tRNA synthetase (QARS). In a recent publication in the American Journal of Human Genetics, Zhang and colleagues identify compound heterozygous mutations in the QARS gene in two families with progressive microcephaly, neurodegeneration, and intractable, early-onset epilepsy. Interestingly, in at least two probands, the seizures are described as migrating partial seizures reminiscent of Malignant Migrating Partial Seizures of Infancy (MMPSI) due to mutations in KCNT1. The disease mechanism, however, appears to be entirely different. Continue reading