Transcriptomic studies have demonstrated that the vast majority of the genomes of mammals and other complex organisms is expressed in highly dynamic and cell-specific patterns to produce large numbers of intergenic, antisense and intronic long non-protein-coding RNAs (lncRNAs). Despite well characterized examples, their scaling with developmental complexity, and many demonstrations of their association with cellular processes, development and diseases, lncRNAs are still to be widely accepted as major players in gene regulation. This may reflect an underappreciation of the extent and precision of the epigenetic control of differentiation and development, where lncRNAs appear to have a central role, likely as organizational and guide molecules: most lncRNAs are nuclear-localized and chromatin-associated, with some involved in the formation of specialized subcellular domains. I suggest that a reassessment of the conceptual framework of genetic information and gene expression in the 4-dimensional ontogeny of spatially organized multicellular organisms is required. Together with this and further studies on their biology, the key challenges now are to determine the structure–function relationships of lncRNAs, which may be aided by emerging evidence of their modular structure, the role of RNA editing and modification in enabling epigenetic plasticity, and the role of RNA signaling in transgenerational inheritance of experience.
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