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I'm not a biologist, but I think I have a sound layman's understanding of how mRNA vaccines are made. At least this is how it was explained to me:

  • create some mRNA
  • get it into a cell (with the lipid nanoparticles)
  • the cell uses the mRNA, sort of like a blueprint, to create a protein (like spike protein from COVID-19)
  • the body sees these proteins, attacks them and learns for the next time

So far so good. But what I can not find anywhere, is a (layman, sorry) explanation of that first step: how we can create mRNA in a lab.

In a podcast (Stuff You Should Know) it was explained that it's fairly simple and they just enter the required sequence in a computer.

That's all well and good, but I'm interested in how we can actually create a specific mRNA sequence in a lab from scratch.

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In the case of the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines, the mRNA is synthesized by in vitro transcription. The gene of interest (e.g. the SARS-CoV-2 Spike protein) is cloned into a plasmid and transcribed by RNA polymerase. The mRNA is then purified and packaged in a lipid bilayer. NHGRI has a nice infographic explaining the full process.

RNA can also be made by solid-phase synthesis, though this tends to be expensive and low-throughput.

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