mRNA 101

We’ve heard a lot about mRNA technology over the last few years as it's played a vital role in curbing the spread of COVID-19, but how does it actually work?

Let’s take a deep dive into what mRNA is, and how new technology utilizes it to create vaccines, combat disease, and more.

mRNA is a product of gene expression, the process used to create proteins from genes.

DNA, RNA, and protein.

Gene expression is made up of two main steps: transcription and translation.

During transcription, DNA passes gene information to RNA.


mRNA is a special kind of RNA that tells cells how to create proteins.

It's known as messenger RNA because it delivers information from the nucleus of the cell to the cytoplasm.

 RNA to protein.

mRNA works with a ribosome and tRNA (transfer RNA) to build proteins from individual amino acids.[1]

So, how do vaccines utilize mRNA to produce immunity?

Vaccine injecting mRNA.

The process starts when mRNA is introduced into the body. Since mRNA tells cells how to create proteins, a piece of viral protein is created.[2]

This piece of protein is from the outer membrane of the viral cell and is neither infectious nor a whole virus.[3]

Protein piece closeup.
Antibodies surrounding viral protein.

Your body recognizes this piece of viral protein as a foreign object, and starts producing antibodies to counter the perceived threat.

These antibodies work to kill off the protein produced by the mRNA.

Since the antibodies stay behind even after the protein is gone, your body is now ready to counteract the threat if it occurs again with a full virus.[4]

Antibodies after killing off viral protein.

What benefits does mRNA have over traditional methods?

Although you might not have heard of it until recently, mRNA technology is actually very safe.

Graphic of mRNA degrading as protein forms.

The mRNA does not interact with the DNA in our cells, and it degrades naturally after use in our body.

mRNA-based treatments can also be created at a much quicker scale.

 RNA to protein.

Scientists can develop mRNA synthetically in days, since the process requires just the necessary genetic code.

mRNA technology also has a bright future as a platform for developing treatments to other diseases!

For example, we may be able to develop treatments for the Zika virus, rabies, the flu, and more using this technology.

Zika virus with speech bubble.

In the future, we might even be able to create "universal" vaccines that protect from things like future strains of coronaviruses.

mRNA with sword fighting coronaviruses.

Using mRNA, we could create treatments targeting common properties between these immune threats.[5]

And that's mRNA 101! Hopefully you found this page helpful. If you have any suggestions or corrections, feel free to contact me.

If you'd like to explore mRNA further, here are some helpful resources:

Image credits:

If you liked this website, feel free to check out more of my work at!