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1.  RNA Interference in Schistosoma mansoni Schistosomula: Selectivity, Sensitivity and Operation for Larger-Scale Screening 
The possible emergence of resistance to the only available drug for schistosomiasis spurs drug discovery that has been recently incentivized by the availability of improved transcriptome and genome sequence information. Transient RNAi has emerged as a straightforward and important technique to interrogate that information through decreased or loss of gene function and identify potential drug targets. To date, RNAi studies in schistosome stages infecting humans have focused on single (or up to 3) genes of interest. Therefore, in the context of standardizing larger RNAi screens, data are limited on the extent of possible off-targeting effects, gene-to-gene variability in RNAi efficiency and the operational capabilities and limits of RNAi.
Methodology/Principal Findings
We investigated in vitro the sensitivity and selectivity of RNAi using double-stranded (ds)RNA (approximately 500 bp) designed to target 11 Schistosoma mansoni genes that are expressed in different tissues; the gut, tegument and otherwise. Among the genes investigated were 5 that had been previously predicted to be essential for parasite survival. We employed mechanically transformed schistosomula that are relevant to parasitism in humans, amenable to screen automation and easier to obtain in greater numbers than adult parasites. The operational parameters investigated included defined culture media for optimal parasite maintenance, transfection strategy, time- and dose- dependency of RNAi, and dosing limits. Of 7 defined culture media tested, Basch Medium 169 was optimal for parasite maintenance. RNAi was best achieved by co-incubating parasites and dsRNA (standardized to 30 µg/ml for 6 days); electroporation provided no added benefit. RNAi, including interference of more than one transcript, was selective to the gene target(s) within the pools of transcripts representative of each tissue. Concentrations of dsRNA above 90 µg/ml were directly toxic. RNAi efficiency was transcript-dependent (from 40 to >75% knockdown relative to controls) and this may have contributed to the lack of obvious phenotypes observed, even after prolonged incubations of 3 weeks. Within minutes of their mechanical preparation from cercariae, schistosomula accumulated fluorescent macromolecules in the gut indicating that the gut is an important route through which RNAi is expedited in the developing parasite.
Transient RNAi operates gene-selectively in S. mansoni newly transformed schistosomula yet the sensitivity of individual gene targets varies. These findings and the operational parameters defined will facilitate larger RNAi screens.
Author Summary
RNA interference (RNAi) is a technique to selectively suppress mRNA of individual genes and, consequently, their cognate proteins. RNAi using double-stranded (ds) RNA has been used to interrogate the function of mainly single genes in the flatworm, Schistosoma mansoni, one of a number of schistosome species causing schistosomiasis. In consideration of large-scale screens to identify candidate drug targets, we examined the selectivity and sensitivity (the degree of suppression) of RNAi for 11 genes produced in different tissues of the parasite: the gut, tegument (surface) and otherwise. We used the schistosomulum stage prepared from infective cercariae larvae which are accessible in large numbers and adaptable to automated screening platforms. We found that RNAi suppresses transcripts selectively, however, the sensitivity of suppression varies (40%–>75%). No obvious changes in the parasite occurred post-RNAi, including after targeting the mRNA of genes that had been computationally predicted to be essential for survival. Additionally, we defined operational parameters to facilitate large-scale RNAi, including choice of culture medium, transfection strategy to deliver dsRNA, dose- and time-dependency, and dosing limits. Finally, using fluorescent probes, we show that the developing gut allows rapid entrance of dsRNA into the parasite to initiate RNAi.
PMCID: PMC2957409  PMID: 20976050
2.  Clustering phenotype populations by genome-wide RNAi and multiparametric imaging 
How to predict gene function from phenotypic cues is a longstanding question in biology.Using quantitative multiparametric imaging, RNAi-mediated cell phenotypes were measured on a genome-wide scale.On the basis of phenotypic ‘neighbourhoods', we identified previously uncharacterized human genes as mediators of the DNA damage response pathway and the maintenance of genomic integrity.The phenotypic map is provided as an online resource at for discovering further functional relationships for a broad spectrum of biological module
Genetic screens for phenotypic similarity have made key contributions for associating genes with biological processes. Aggregating genes by similarity of their loss-of-function phenotype has provided insights into signalling pathways that have a conserved function from Drosophila to human (Nusslein-Volhard and Wieschaus, 1980; Bier, 2005). Complex visual phenotypes, such as defects in pattern formation during development, greatly facilitated the classification of genes into pathways, and phenotypic similarities in many cases predicted molecular relationships. With RNA interference (RNAi), highly parallel phenotyping of loss-of-function effects in cultured cells has become feasible in many organisms whose genome have been sequenced (Boutros and Ahringer, 2008). One of the current challenges is the computational categorization of visual phenotypes and the prediction of gene function and associated biological processes. With large parts of the genome still being in unchartered territory, deriving functional information from large-scale phenotype analysis promises to uncover novel gene–gene relationships and to generate functional maps to explore cellular processes.
In this study, we developed an automated approach using RNAi-mediated cell phenotypes, multiparametric imaging and computational modelling to obtain functional information on previously uncharacterized genes. To generate broad, computer-readable phenotypic signatures, we measured the effect of RNAi-mediated knockdowns on changes of cell morphology in human cells on a genome-wide scale. First, the several million cells were stained for nuclear and cytoskeletal markers and then imaged using automated microscopy. On the basis of fluorescent markers, we established an automated image analysis to classify individual cells (Figure 1A). After cell segmentation for determining nuclei and cell boundaries (Figure 1C), we computed 51 cell descriptors that quantified intensities, shape characteristics and texture (Figure 1F). Individual cells were categorized into 1 of 10 classes, which included cells showing protrusion/elongation, cells in metaphase, large cells, condensed cells, cells with lamellipodia and cellular debris (Figure 1D and E). Each siRNA knockdown was summarized by a phenotypic profile and differences between RNAi knockdowns were quantified by the similarity between phenotypic profiles. We termed the vector of scores a phenoprint (Figure 3C) and defined the phenotypic distance between a pair of perturbations as the distance between their corresponding phenoprints.
To visualize the distribution of all phenoprints, we plotted them in a genome-wide map as a two-dimensional representation of the phenotypic similarity relationships (Figure 3A). The complete data set and an interactive version of the phenotypic map are available at The map identified phenotypic ‘neighbourhoods', which are characterized by cells with lamellipodia (WNK3, ANXA4), cells with prominent actin fibres (ODF2, SOD3), abundance of large cells (CA14), many elongated cells (SH2B2, ELMO2), decrease in cell number (TPX2, COPB1, COPA), increase in number of cells in metaphase (BLR1, CIB2) and combinations of phenotypes such as presence of large cells with protrusions and bright nuclei (PTPRZ1, RRM1; Figure 3B).
To test whether phenotypic similarity might serve as a predictor of gene function, we focused our further analysis on two clusters that contained genes associated with the DNA damage response (DDR) and genomic integrity (Figure 3A and C). The first phenotypic cluster included proteins with kinetochore-associated functions such as NUF2 (Figure 3B) and SGOL1. It also contained the centrosomal protein CEP164 that has been described as an important mediator of the DNA damage-activated signalling cascade (Sivasubramaniam et al, 2008) and the largely uncharacterized genes DONSON and SON. A second phenotypically distinct cluster included previously described components of the DDR pathway such as RRM1 (Figure 3A–C), CLSPN, PRIM2 and SETD8. Furthermore, this cluster contained the poorly characterized genes CADM1 and CD3EAP.
Cells activate a signalling cascade in response to DNA damage induced by exogenous and endogenous factors. Central are the kinases ATM and ATR as they serve as sensors of DNA damage and activators of further downstream kinases (Harper and Elledge, 2007; Cimprich and Cortez, 2008). To investigate whether DONSON, SON, CADM1 and CD3EAP, which were found in phenotypic ‘neighbourhoods' to known DDR components, have a role in the DNA damage signalling pathway, we tested the effect of their depletion on the DDR on γ irradiation. As indicated by reduced CHEK1 phosphorylation, siRNA knock down of DONSON, SON, CD3EAP or CADM1 resulted in impaired DDR signalling on γ irradiation. Furthermore, knock down of DONSON or SON reduced phosphorylation of downstream effectors such as NBS1, CHEK1 and the histone variant H2AX on UVC irradiation. DONSON depletion also impaired recruitment of RPA2 onto chromatin and SON knockdown reduced RPA2 phosphorylation indicating that DONSON and SON presumably act downstream of the activation of ATM. In agreement to their phenotypic profile, these results suggest that DONSON, SON, CADM1 and CD3EAP are important mediators of the DDR. Further experiments demonstrated that they are also required for the maintenance of genomic integrity.
In summary, we show that genes with similar phenotypic profiles tend to share similar functions. The power of our computational and experimental approach is demonstrated by the identification of novel signalling regulators whose phenotypic profiles were found in proximity to known biological modules. Therefore, we believe that such phenotypic maps can serve as a resource for functional discovery and characterization of unknown genes. Furthermore, such approaches are also applicable for other perturbation reagents, such as small molecules in drug discovery and development. One could also envision combined maps that contain both siRNAs and small molecules to predict target–small molecule relationships and potential side effects.
Genetic screens for phenotypic similarity have made key contributions to associating genes with biological processes. With RNA interference (RNAi), highly parallel phenotyping of loss-of-function effects in cells has become feasible. One of the current challenges however is the computational categorization of visual phenotypes and the prediction of biological function and processes. In this study, we describe a combined computational and experimental approach to discover novel gene functions and explore functional relationships. We performed a genome-wide RNAi screen in human cells and used quantitative descriptors derived from high-throughput imaging to generate multiparametric phenotypic profiles. We show that profiles predicted functions of genes by phenotypic similarity. Specifically, we examined several candidates including the largely uncharacterized gene DONSON, which shared phenotype similarity with known factors of DNA damage response (DDR) and genomic integrity. Experimental evidence supports that DONSON is a novel centrosomal protein required for DDR signalling and genomic integrity. Multiparametric phenotyping by automated imaging and computational annotation is a powerful method for functional discovery and mapping the landscape of phenotypic responses to cellular perturbations.
PMCID: PMC2913390  PMID: 20531400
DNA damage response signalling; massively parallel phenotyping; phenotype networks; RNAi screening
3.  RNAi Dynamics in Juvenile Fasciola spp. Liver Flukes Reveals the Persistence of Gene Silencing In Vitro 
Fasciola spp. liver fluke cause pernicious disease in humans and animals. Whilst current control is unsustainable due to anthelmintic resistance, gene silencing (RNA interference, RNAi) has the potential to contribute to functional validation of new therapeutic targets. The susceptibility of juvenile Fasciola hepatica to double stranded (ds)RNA-induced RNAi has been reported. To exploit this we probe RNAi dynamics, penetrance and persistence with the aim of building a robust platform for reverse genetics in liver fluke. We describe development of standardised RNAi protocols for a commercially-available liver fluke strain (the US Pacific North West Wild Strain), validated via robust transcriptional silencing of seven virulence genes, with in-depth experimental optimisation of three: cathepsin L (FheCatL) and B (FheCatB) cysteine proteases, and a σ-class glutathione transferase (FheσGST).
Methodology/Principal Findings
Robust transcriptional silencing of targets in both F. hepatica and Fasciola gigantica juveniles is achievable following exposure to long (200–320 nt) dsRNAs or 27 nt short interfering (si)RNAs. Although juveniles are highly RNAi-susceptible, they display slower transcript and protein knockdown dynamics than those reported previously. Knockdown was detectable following as little as 4h exposure to trigger (target-dependent) and in all cases silencing persisted for ≥25 days following long dsRNA exposure. Combinatorial silencing of three targets by mixing multiple long dsRNAs was similarly efficient. Despite profound transcriptional suppression, we found a significant time-lag before the occurrence of protein suppression; FheσGST and FheCatL protein suppression were only detectable after 9 and 21 days, respectively.
In spite of marked variation in knockdown dynamics, we find that a transient exposure to long dsRNA or siRNA triggers robust RNAi penetrance and persistence in liver fluke NEJs supporting the development of multiple-throughput phenotypic screens for control target validation. RNAi persistence in fluke encourages in vivo studies on gene function using worms exposed to RNAi-triggers prior to infection.
Author Summary
RNA interference (RNAi) is a method for selectively silencing (or reducing expression of) mRNA transcripts, an approach which can be used to interrogate the function of genes and proteins, and enables the validation of potential targets for anthelmintic drugs or vaccines, by investigating the impact of silencing a particular gene on parasite survival or behaviour. This study focuses on liver fluke parasites, which cause serious disease in both humans and animals. We have only a handful of drugs with which to treat these infections, to which flukes are developing resistance, and no anti-fluke vaccines have yet been developed. New options for treatment and control of liver fluke parasites are sorely needed, and RNAi is a powerful tool in the development of such treatments. This study developed a set of simple methods for triggering RNAi in juvenile liver fluke, which show that although robust transcriptional suppression can be readily achieved across all targets tested, protein suppression occurs only after a target-specific lag period (likely related to protein half-life), which may require >25 days under current in vitro maintenance conditions. These findings are important for researchers aiming to employ RNAi in investigations of liver fluke biology and target validation.
PMCID: PMC4177864  PMID: 25254508
4.  An RIG-I-Like RNA Helicase Mediates Antiviral RNAi Downstream of Viral siRNA Biogenesis in Caenorhabditis elegans 
PLoS Pathogens  2009;5(2):e1000286.
Dicer ribonucleases of plants and invertebrate animals including Caenorhabditis elegans recognize and process a viral RNA trigger into virus-derived small interfering RNAs (siRNAs) to guide specific viral immunity by Argonaute-dependent RNA interference (RNAi). C. elegans also encodes three Dicer-related helicase (drh) genes closely related to the RIG-I-like RNA helicase receptors which initiate broad-spectrum innate immunity against RNA viruses in mammals. Here we developed a transgenic C. elegans strain that expressed intense green fluorescence from a chromosomally integrated flock house virus replicon only after knockdown or knockout of a gene required for antiviral RNAi. Use of the reporter nematode strain in a feeding RNAi screen identified drh-1 as an essential component of the antiviral RNAi pathway. However, RNAi induced by either exogenous dsRNA or the viral replicon was enhanced in drh-2 mutant nematodes, whereas exogenous RNAi was essentially unaltered in drh-1 mutant nematodes, indicating that exogenous and antiviral RNAi pathways are genetically distinct. Genetic epistatic analysis shows that drh-1 acts downstream of virus sensing and viral siRNA biogenesis to mediate specific antiviral RNAi. Notably, we found that two members of the substantially expanded subfamily of Argonautes specific to C. elegans control parallel antiviral RNAi pathways. These findings demonstrate both conserved and unique strategies of C. elegans in antiviral defense.
Author Summary
The genome of Caenorhabditis elegans encodes three Dicer-related helicases (DRHs) highly homologous to the DExD/H box helicase domain found in two distinct families of virus sensors, Dicer ribonucleases and RIG-I-like helicases (RLRs). Dicer initiates the specific, RNAi-mediated viral immunity in plants, fungi and invertebrates by producing virus-derived small interfering RNAs (siRNAs). By contrast, mammalian RLRs trigger interferon production and broad-spectrum viral immunity, although one of the three RLRs may act as both a negative and positive regulator of viral immunity. In this study we developed a transgenic C. elegans strain for high-throughput genetic screens and identified 35 genes including drh-1 that are required for RNAi-mediated viral immunity. Genetic epistatic analyses demonstrate that drh-1 mediates RNAi immunity downstream of the production of viral siRNAs. Notably, we found that drh-2 functions as a negative regulator of the viral immunity. Thus, both nematode DRHs and mammalian RLRs participate in antiviral immune responses. Unlike mammalian RLRs, however, nematode DRH-1 employs an RNAi effector mechanism and is unlikely to be involved in direct virus sensing.
PMCID: PMC2629121  PMID: 19197349
5.  A functional genomic analysis of cell morphology using RNA interference 
Journal of Biology  2003;2(4):27.
The diversity of metazoan cell shapes is influenced by the dynamic cytoskeletal network. With the advent of RNA-interference (RNAi) technology, it is now possible to screen systematically for genes controlling specific cell-biological processes, including those required to generate distinct morphologies.
We adapted existing RNAi technology in Drosophila cell culture for use in high-throughput screens to enable a comprehensive genetic dissection of cell morphogenesis. To identify genes responsible for the characteristic shape of two morphologically distinct cell lines, we performed RNAi screens in each line with a set of double-stranded RNAs (dsRNAs) targeting 994 predicted cell shape regulators. Using automated fluorescence microscopy to visualize actin filaments, microtubules and DNA, we detected morphological phenotypes for 160 genes, one-third of which have not been previously characterized in vivo. Genes with similar phenotypes corresponded to known components of pathways controlling cytoskeletal organization and cell shape, leading us to propose similar functions for previously uncharacterized genes. Furthermore, we were able to uncover genes acting within a specific pathway using a co-RNAi screen to identify dsRNA suppressors of a cell shape change induced by Pten dsRNA.
Using RNAi, we identified genes that influence cytoskeletal organization and morphology in two distinct cell types. Some genes exhibited similar RNAi phenotypes in both cell types, while others appeared to have cell-type-specific functions, in part reflecting the different mechanisms used to generate a round or a flat cell morphology.
PMCID: PMC333409  PMID: 14527345
6.  Systemic RNAi mediated gene silencing in the anhydrobiotic nematode Panagrolaimus superbus 
Gene silencing by RNA interference (RNAi) is a powerful tool for functional genomics. Although RNAi was first described in Caenorhabditis elegans, several nematode species are unable to mount an RNAi response when exposed to exogenous double stranded RNA (dsRNA). These include the satellite model organisms Pristionchus pacificus and Oscheius tipulae. Available data also suggest that the RNAi pathway targeting exogenous dsRNA may not be fully functional in some animal parasitic nematodes. The genus Panagrolaimus contains bacterial feeding nematodes which occupy a diversity of niches ranging from polar, temperate and semi-arid soils to terrestrial mosses. Thus many Panagrolaimus species are adapted to tolerate freezing and desiccation and are excellent systems to study the molecular basis of environmental stress tolerance. We investigated whether Panagrolaimus is susceptible to RNAi to determine whether this nematode could be used in large scale RNAi studies in functional genomics.
We studied two species: Panagrolaimus sp. PS1159 and Panagrolaimus superbus. Both nematode species displayed embryonic lethal RNAi phenotypes following ingestion of Escherichia coli expressing dsRNA for the C. elegans embryonic lethal genes Ce-lmn-1 and Ce-ran-4. Embryonic lethal RNAi phenotypes were also obtained in both species upon ingestion of dsRNA for the Panagrolaimus genes ef1b and rps-2. Single nematode RT-PCR showed that a significant reduction in mRNA transcript levels occurred for the target ef1b and rps-2 genes in RNAi treated Panagrolaimus sp. 1159 nematodes. Visible RNAi phenotypes were also observed when P. superbus was exposed to dsRNA for structural genes encoding contractile proteins. All RNAi phenotypes were highly penetrant, particularly in P. superbus.
This demonstration that Panagrolaimus is amenable to RNAi by feeding will allow the development of high throughput methods of RNAi screening for P. superbus. This greatly enhances the utility of this nematode as a model system for the study of the molecular biology of anhydrobiosis and cryobiosis and as a possible satellite model nematode for comparative and functional genomics. Our data also identify another nematode infraorder which is amenable to RNAi and provide additional information on the diversity of RNAi phenotypes in nematodes.
PMCID: PMC2453295  PMID: 18565215
7.  Comparative Genomics Reveals Two Novel RNAi Factors in Trypanosoma brucei and Provides Insight into the Core Machinery 
PLoS Pathogens  2012;8(5):e1002678.
The introduction ten years ago of RNA interference (RNAi) as a tool for molecular exploration in Trypanosoma brucei has led to a surge in our understanding of the pathogenesis and biology of this human parasite. In particular, a genome-wide RNAi screen has recently been combined with next-generation Illumina sequencing to expose catalogues of genes associated with loss of fitness in distinct developmental stages. At present, this technology is restricted to RNAi-positive protozoan parasites, which excludes T. cruzi, Leishmania major, and Plasmodium falciparum. Therefore, elucidating the mechanism of RNAi and identifying the essential components of the pathway is fundamental for improving RNAi efficiency in T. brucei and for transferring the RNAi tool to RNAi-deficient pathogens. Here we used comparative genomics of RNAi-positive and -negative trypanosomatid protozoans to identify the repertoire of factors in T. brucei. In addition to the previously characterized Argonaute 1 (AGO1) protein and the cytoplasmic and nuclear Dicers, TbDCL1 and TbDCL2, respectively, we identified the RNA Interference Factors 4 and 5 (TbRIF4 and TbRIF5). TbRIF4 is a 3′-5′ exonuclease of the DnaQ superfamily and plays a critical role in the conversion of duplex siRNAs to the single-stranded form, thus generating a TbAGO1-siRNA complex required for target-specific cleavage. TbRIF5 is essential for cytoplasmic RNAi and appears to act as a TbDCL1 cofactor. The availability of the core RNAi machinery in T. brucei provides a platform to gain mechanistic insights in this ancient eukaryote and to identify the minimal set of components required to reconstitute RNAi in RNAi-deficient parasites.
Author Summary
RNA interference (RNAi), a naturally-occurring pathway whereby the presence of double-stranded RNA in a cell triggers the degradation of homologous mRNA, has been harnessed in many organisms as an invaluable molecular biology tool to interrogate gene function. Although this technology is widely used in the protozoan parasite Trypanosoma brucei, other parasites of considerable public health significance, such as Trypanosoma cruzi, Leishmania major, and Plasmodium falciparum do not perform RNAi. Since RNAi has recently been introduced into budding yeast, this opens up the possibility that RNAi can be reconstituted in these pathogens. The key to this is getting a handle on the essential RNAi factors in T. brucei. By applying comparative genomics we identified five genes that are present in the RNAi-proficient species, but not in RNAi-deficient species: three previously identified RNAi factors, and two novel ones, which are described here. This insight into the core T. brucei RNAi machinery represents a major step towards transferring this pathway to RNAi-deficient parasites.
PMCID: PMC3359990  PMID: 22654659
8.  RNAi-Dependent and Independent Control of LINE1 Accumulation and Mobility in Mouse Embryonic Stem Cells 
PLoS Genetics  2013;9(11):e1003791.
In most mouse tissues, long-interspersed elements-1 (L1s) are silenced via methylation of their 5′-untranslated regions (5′-UTR). A gradual loss-of-methylation in pre-implantation embryos coincides with L1 retrotransposition in blastocysts, generating potentially harmful mutations. Here, we show that Dicer- and Ago2-dependent RNAi restricts L1 accumulation and retrotransposition in undifferentiated mouse embryonic stem cells (mESCs), derived from blastocysts. RNAi correlates with production of Dicer-dependent 22-nt small RNAs mapping to overlapping sense/antisense transcripts produced from the L1 5′-UTR. However, RNA-surveillance pathways simultaneously degrade these transcripts and, consequently, confound the anti-L1 RNAi response. In Dicer−/− mESC complementation experiments involving ectopic Dicer expression, L1 silencing was rescued in cells in which microRNAs remained strongly depleted. Furthermore, these cells proliferated and differentiated normally, unlike their non-complemented counterparts. These results shed new light on L1 biology, uncover defensive, in addition to regulatory roles for RNAi, and raise questions on the differentiation defects of Dicer−/− mESCs.
Author Summary
A basal network of gene regulation orchestrates the processes ensuring maintenance of genome integrity. Eukaryotic small RNAs generated by the RNAse-III Dicer have emerged as central players in this network, by mediating gene silencing at the transcriptional or post-transcriptional level via RNA interference (RNAi). To gain insight into their potential developmental functions in mammals, we have characterized small RNA expression profiles during mouse Embryonic Stem Cell (mESCs) differentiation, a model for early mammalian development. Long interspersed elements 1 (L1) are non-long-terminal-repeat retrotransposons that dominate the mouse genomic landscape, and are expressed in germ cells or during early development and mESCs. Based on clear precedents in plants and fission yeast, we investigated a role for RNAi and other RNA-based pathways in the regulation of L1 transcription and mobilization. Our work uncovered the existence of small (s)RNAs that map to active L1 elements. Some have characteristics of cognate siRNA produced by Dicer, while others display strand biases and length heterogeneity that evoke their biogenesis through RNA surveillance pathways, in a Dicer-independent manner. Furthermore, genetic ablation of DICER or of ARGONAUTE proteins has complex and profound consequences on L1 transcription and mobilization, indicating that endogenous RNAi do indeed maintain genomic integrity against L1 proliferation.
PMCID: PMC3820764  PMID: 24244175
9.  RNAi–Based Functional Profiling of Loci from Blood Lipid Genome-Wide Association Studies Identifies Genes with Cholesterol-Regulatory Function 
PLoS Genetics  2013;9(2):e1003338.
Genome-wide association studies (GWAS) are powerful tools to unravel genomic loci associated with common traits and complex human disease. However, GWAS only rarely reveal information on the exact genetic elements and pathogenic events underlying an association. In order to extract functional information from genomic data, strategies for systematic follow-up studies on a phenotypic level are required. Here we address these limitations by applying RNA interference (RNAi) to analyze 133 candidate genes within 56 loci identified by GWAS as associated with blood lipid levels, coronary artery disease, and/or myocardial infarction for a function in regulating cholesterol levels in cells. Knockdown of a surprisingly high number (41%) of trait-associated genes affected low-density lipoprotein (LDL) internalization and/or cellular levels of free cholesterol. Our data further show that individual GWAS loci may contain more than one gene with cholesterol-regulatory functions. Using a set of secondary assays we demonstrate for a number of genes without previously known lipid-regulatory roles (e.g. CXCL12, FAM174A, PAFAH1B1, SEZ6L, TBL2, WDR12) that knockdown correlates with altered LDL–receptor levels and/or that overexpression as GFP–tagged fusion proteins inversely modifies cellular cholesterol levels. By providing strong evidence for disease-relevant functions of lipid trait-associated genes, our study demonstrates that quantitative, cell-based RNAi is a scalable strategy for a systematic, unbiased detection of functional effectors within GWAS loci.
Author Summary
Complex traits and diseases are assumed to result from interactions between multiple genes in relevant biological processes. Recent genome-wide association studies have uncovered many novel genomic loci where genes with functional significance are expected. However, functional validation of such genes has thus far remained confined to single gene approaches. Here, we use RNA interference and high-content screening microscopy to profile 133 genes at 56 loci associated with blood lipid traits, cardiovascular disease, and/or myocardial infarction for a function in regulating cellular free cholesterol levels and the efficiency of low-density lipoprotein uptake. Our results suggest that a high number of trait-associated genes have conserved cholesterol-regulatory functions in cells, with several GWAS loci harboring more than one gene of likely functional significance. For a number of genes without previously known lipid-regulatory functions, consequences upon siRNA knockdown positively correlated with cellular levels of LDL receptor, a major determinant of blood LDL levels. Moreover, GFP–tagged fusion proteins of several candidates shifted cellular cholesterol levels to inverse directions than knockdown, and subcellular localization of some candidates was sterol-dependent. Our study generates a valuable resource for prioritization of lipid-trait/CAD/MI-associated genes for future in-depth mechanistic analyses and introduces cell-based RNAi as a scalable and unbiased tool for functional follow-up of GWAS loci.
PMCID: PMC3585126  PMID: 23468663
10.  RNAi screen of Salmonella invasion shows role of COPI in membrane targeting of cholesterol and Cdc42 
A genome wide RNAi screen identifies 72 host cell genes affecting S. Typhimurium entry, including actin regulators and COPI. This study implicates COPI-dependent cholesterol and sphingolipid localization as a common mechanism of infection by bacterial and viral pathogens.
Genome-scale RNAi screen identifies 72 host genes affecting S. Typhimurium host cell invasion.Step-specific follow-up assays assign the phenotypes to specific steps of the invasion process.COPI effects on host cell binding, ruffling and invasion were traced to a key role of COPI in membrane targeting of cholesterol, sphingolipids, Rac1 and Cdc42.This new role of COPI explains why COPI is required for host cell infection by numerous bacterial and viral pathogens.
Pathogens are not only a menace to public health, but they also provide excellent tools for probing host cell function. Thus, studying infection mechanisms has fueled progress in cell biology (Ridley et al, 1992; Welch et al, 1997). In the presented study, we have performed an RNAi screen to identify host cell genes required for Salmonella host cell invasion. This screen identified proteins known to contribute to Salmonella-induced actin rearrangements (e.g., Cdc42 and the Arp2/3 complex; reviewed in Schlumberger and Hardt, 2006) and vesicular traffic (e.g., Rab7) as well as unexpected hits, such as the COPI complex. COPI is a known organizer of Golgi-to-ER vesicle transport (Bethune et al, 2006; Beck et al, 2009). Here, we show that COPI is also involved in plasma membrane targeting of cholesterol, sphingolipids and the Rho GTPases Cdc42 and Rac1, essential host cell factors required for Salmonella invasion. This explains why COPI depletion inhibits infection by S. Typhimurium and illustrates how combining bacterial pathogenesis and systems approaches can promote cell biology.
Salmonella Typhimurium is a common food-borne pathogen and worldwide a major public health problem causing severe diarrhea. The pathogen uses the host's gut mucosa as a portal of entry and gut tissue invasion is a key event leading to the disease. This explains the intense interest from medicine and basic biology in the mechanism of Salmonella host cell invasion.
Tissue culture infection models have delineated a sequence of events leading host cell invasion (Figure 1; Schlumberger and Hardt, 2006): (i) pathogen binding to the host cell surface; (ii) activation of a syringe-like apparatus (‘Type III secretion system 1', T1) of the bacterium and injection of a bacterial toxin cocktail into the host cell. These toxins include SopE, a key virulence factor triggering invasion (Hardt et al, 1998), which was analyzed in our study; (iii) toxin-triggered membrane ruffling. To a significant extent, this is facilitated by SopE-triggered activation of Cdc42 and Rac1 and subsequent actin polymerization at the site of infection; (iv) engulfment of the pathogen within a vesicular compartment (SCV) and (v) maturation of the SCV, a process driven by a second Type III secretion system (T2), which is expressed by the pathogen upon bacterial entry (Figure 1). This sequence of events mediates Salmonella invasion into the gut epithelium and illustrates that this pathogen can be used for probing mechanisms of host cell actin control, membrane biogenesis, vesicle formation and vesicular trafficking.
SopE is a key virulence factor of invasion and triggers the activation of Cdc42 and Rac1 and subsequent actin polymerization at the site of infection. We have employed a SopE-expressing S. Typhimurium strain and RNAi screening technology to identify host cell factors affecting invasion. First, we developed an automated fluorescence microscopy assay to quantify S. Typhimurium entry in a high-throughput format (Figure 1C). This assay was based on a GFP reporter expressed by the pathogen after invasion and maturation of the SCV. Using this assay, we screened a ‘druggable genome' siRNA library (6978 genes, 3 oligos each, 1 oligo per well) and identified 72 invasion hits. These included established regulators of the actin cytoskeleton (Cdc42, Arp2/3, Nap1; Schlumberger and Hardt, 2006), some of which have not been implicated so far in Salmonella entry (Pfn1, Cap1), as well as proteins not previously thought to influence infection (Atp1a1, Rbx1, COPI complex). Potentially, these hits could affect any step of the invasion process (Figure 1A).
In the second stage of the study, we have assigned each ‘invasion hit' to particular steps of the invasion process. For this purpose, we developed step-specific assays for Salmonella binding, injection, ruffling and membrane engulfment and re-screened the genes found as hits in the first screen (four siRNAs per gene). As expected, a significant number of ‘hits' affected binding to the host cell, others affected binding and ruffling (e.g., Pfn1, Itgβ5, Cap1), a few were specific for the ruffling step (e.g., Cdc42) and some affected SCV maturation, namely Rab7a, the trafficking protein Vps39 and the vacuolar proton pump Atp6ap2. Thus, our experimental strategy allowed mechanistic interpretation and linked novel hits to particular phenotypes, thus providing a basis for further studies (Figure 1).
COPI depletion impaired effector injection and ruffling. This was surprising, as the COPI complex was known to regulate retrogade Golgi-to-ER transport, but was not expected to affect pathogen interactions at the plasma membrane. Therefore, we have investigated the underlying mechanism. We have observed that COPI depletion entailed dramatic changes in the plasma membrane composition (Figure 6). Cholesterol and sphingolipids, which form domains (‘lipid rafts') in the plasma membrane, were depleted from the cell surface and redirected into a large vesicular compartment. The same was true for the Rho GTPases Rac1 and Cdc42. This strong decrease in the amount of cholesterol-enriched microdomains and Rho GTPases in the plasma membrane explained the observed defects in S. Typhimurium host cell invasion and assigned a novel role for COPI in controlling mammalian plasma membrane composition. It should be noted that other viral and bacterial pathogens do show a similar dependency on host cellular COPI and plasma membrane lipids. This includes notorious pathogens such as Staphylococcus aureus (Ramet et al, 2002; Potrich et al, 2009), Listeria monocytogenes (Seveau et al, 2004; Agaisse et al, 2005; Cheng et al, 2005; Gekara et al, 2005), Mycobacterium tuberculosis (Munoz et al, 2009), Chlamydia trachomatis (Elwell et al, 2008), influenza virus (Hao et al, 2008; Konig et al, 2010), hepatitis C virus (Tai et al, 2009; Popescu and Dubuisson, 2010) and the vesicular stomatitis virus (presented study) and suggests that COPI-mediated control of host cell plasma membrane composition might be of broad importance for pathogenesis. Future work will have to address whether this might offer starting points for developing anti-infective therapeutics with a very broad spectrum of activity.
The pathogen Salmonella Typhimurium is a common cause of diarrhea and invades the gut tissue by injecting a cocktail of virulence factors into epithelial cells, triggering actin rearrangements, membrane ruffling and pathogen entry. One of these factors is SopE, a G-nucleotide exchange factor for the host cellular Rho GTPases Rac1 and Cdc42. How SopE mediates cellular invasion is incompletely understood. Using genome-scale RNAi screening we identified 72 known and novel host cell proteins affecting SopE-mediated entry. Follow-up assays assigned these ‘hits' to particular steps of the invasion process; i.e., binding, effector injection, membrane ruffling, membrane closure and maturation of the Salmonella-containing vacuole. Depletion of the COPI complex revealed a unique effect on virulence factor injection and membrane ruffling. Both effects are attributable to mislocalization of cholesterol, sphingolipids, Rac1 and Cdc42 away from the plasma membrane into a large intracellular compartment. Equivalent results were obtained with the vesicular stomatitis virus. Therefore, COPI-facilitated maintenance of lipids may represent a novel, unifying mechanism essential for a wide range of pathogens, offering opportunities for designing new drugs.
PMCID: PMC3094068  PMID: 21407211
coatomer; HeLa; Salmonella; siRNA; systems biology
11.  Functional complementation of RNA interference mutants in trypanosomes 
BMC Biotechnology  2005;5:6.
In many eukaryotic cells, double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) triggers RNA interference (RNAi), the specific degradation of RNA of homologous sequence. RNAi is now a major tool for reverse-genetics projects, including large-scale high-throughput screens. Recent reports have questioned the specificity of RNAi, raising problems in interpretation of RNAi-based experiments.
Using the protozoan Trypanosoma brucei as a model, we designed a functional complementation assay to ascertain that phenotypic effect(s) observed upon RNAi were due to specific silencing of the targeted gene. This was applied to a cytoskeletal gene encoding the paraflagellar rod protein 2 (TbPFR2), whose product is essential for flagellar motility. We demonstrate the complementation of TbPFR2, silenced via dsRNA targeting its UTRs, through the expression of a tagged RNAi-resistant TbPFR2 encoding a protein that could be immunolocalized in the flagellum. Next, we performed a functional complementation of TbPFR2, silenced via dsRNA targeting its coding sequence, through heterologous expression of the TbPFR2 orthologue gene from Trypanosoma cruzi: the flagellum regained its motility.
This work shows that functional complementation experiments can be readily performed in order to ascertain that phenotypic effects observed upon RNAi experiments are indeed due to the specific silencing of the targetted gene. Further, the results described here are of particular interest when reverse genetics studies cannot be easily achieved in organisms not amenable to RNAi. In addition, our strategy should constitute a firm basis to elaborate functional-dissection studies of genes from other organisms.
PMCID: PMC549545  PMID: 15703078
12.  Using iterative cluster merging with improved gap statistics to perform online phenotype discovery in the context of high-throughput RNAi screens 
BMC Bioinformatics  2008;9:264.
The recent emergence of high-throughput automated image acquisition technologies has forever changed how cell biologists collect and analyze data. Historically, the interpretation of cellular phenotypes in different experimental conditions has been dependent upon the expert opinions of well-trained biologists. Such qualitative analysis is particularly effective in detecting subtle, but important, deviations in phenotypes. However, while the rapid and continuing development of automated microscope-based technologies now facilitates the acquisition of trillions of cells in thousands of diverse experimental conditions, such as in the context of RNA interference (RNAi) or small-molecule screens, the massive size of these datasets precludes human analysis. Thus, the development of automated methods which aim to identify novel and biological relevant phenotypes online is one of the major challenges in high-throughput image-based screening. Ideally, phenotype discovery methods should be designed to utilize prior/existing information and tackle three challenging tasks, i.e. restoring pre-defined biological meaningful phenotypes, differentiating novel phenotypes from known ones and clarifying novel phenotypes from each other. Arbitrarily extracted information causes biased analysis, while combining the complete existing datasets with each new image is intractable in high-throughput screens.
Here we present the design and implementation of a novel and robust online phenotype discovery method with broad applicability that can be used in diverse experimental contexts, especially high-throughput RNAi screens. This method features phenotype modelling and iterative cluster merging using improved gap statistics. A Gaussian Mixture Model (GMM) is employed to estimate the distribution of each existing phenotype, and then used as reference distribution in gap statistics. This method is broadly applicable to a number of different types of image-based datasets derived from a wide spectrum of experimental conditions and is suitable to adaptively process new images which are continuously added to existing datasets. Validations were carried out on different dataset, including published RNAi screening using Drosophila embryos [Additional files 1, 2], dataset for cell cycle phase identification using HeLa cells [Additional files 1, 3, 4] and synthetic dataset using polygons, our methods tackled three aforementioned tasks effectively with an accuracy range of 85%–90%. When our method is implemented in the context of a Drosophila genome-scale RNAi image-based screening of cultured cells aimed to identifying the contribution of individual genes towards the regulation of cell-shape, it efficiently discovers meaningful new phenotypes and provides novel biological insight. We also propose a two-step procedure to modify the novelty detection method based on one-class SVM, so that it can be used to online phenotype discovery. In different conditions, we compared the SVM based method with our method using various datasets and our methods consistently outperformed SVM based method in at least two of three tasks by 2% to 5%. These results demonstrate that our methods can be used to better identify novel phenotypes in image-based datasets from a wide range of conditions and organisms.
We demonstrate that our method can detect various novel phenotypes effectively in complex datasets. Experiment results also validate that our method performs consistently under different order of image input, variation of starting conditions including the number and composition of existing phenotypes, and dataset from different screens. In our findings, the proposed method is suitable for online phenotype discovery in diverse high-throughput image-based genetic and chemical screens.
PMCID: PMC2443381  PMID: 18534020
13.  Expanding the Diversity of Imaging-Based RNAi Screen Applications Using Cell Spot Microarrays 
Microarrays  2013;2(2):97-114.
Over the past decade, great strides have been made in identifying gene aberrations and deregulated pathways that are associated with specific disease states. These association studies guide experimental studies aimed at identifying the aberrant genes and networks that cause the disease states. This requires functional manipulation of these genes and networks in laboratory models of normal and diseased cells. One approach is to assess molecular and biological responses to high-throughput RNA interference (RNAi)-induced gene knockdown. These responses can be revealed by immunofluorescent staining for a molecular or cellular process of interest and quantified using fluorescence image analysis. These applications are typically performed in multiwell format, but are limited by high reagent costs and long plate processing times. These limitations can be mitigated by analyzing cells grown in cell spot microarray (CSMA) format. CSMAs are produced by growing cells on small (~200 μm diameter) spots with each spot carrying an siRNA with transfection reagent. The spacing between spots is only a few hundred micrometers, thus thousands of cell spots can be arranged on a single cell culture surface. These high-density cell cultures can be immunofluorescently stained with minimal reagent consumption and analyzed quickly using automated fluorescence microscopy platforms. This review covers basic aspects of imaging-based CSMA technology, describes a wide range of immunofluorescence assays that have already been implemented successfully for CSMA screening and suggests future directions for advanced RNAi screening experiments.
PMCID: PMC5003478  PMID: 27605183
RNA interference; high-throughput screening; cell spot microarrays; image cytometry; quantitative immunofluorescence assays
14.  A parallel genome-wide RNAi screening strategy to identify host proteins important for entry of Marburg virus and H5N1 influenza virus 
Virology Journal  2015;12:194.
Genome-wide RNAi screening has been widely used to identify host proteins involved in replication and infection of different viruses, and numerous host factors are implicated in the replication cycles of these viruses, demonstrating the power of this approach. However, discrepancies on target identification of the same viruses by different groups suggest that high throughput RNAi screening strategies need to be carefully designed, developed and optimized prior to the large scale screening.
Two genome-wide RNAi screens were performed in parallel against the entry of pseudotyped Marburg viruses and avian influenza virus H5N1 utilizing an HIV-1 based surrogate system, to identify host factors which are important for virus entry. A comparative analysis approach was employed in data analysis, which alleviated systematic positional effects and reduced the false positive number of virus-specific hits.
The parallel nature of the strategy allows us to easily identify the host factors for a specific virus with a greatly reduced number of false positives in the initial screen, which is one of the major problems with high throughput screening. The power of this strategy is illustrated by a genome-wide RNAi screen for identifying the host factors important for Marburg virus and/or avian influenza virus H5N1 as described in this study.
This strategy is particularly useful for highly pathogenic viruses since pseudotyping allows us to perform high throughput screens in the biosafety level 2 (BSL-2) containment instead of the BSL-3 or BSL-4 for the infectious viruses, with alleviated safety concerns. The screening strategy together with the unique comparative analysis approach makes the data more suitable for hit selection and enables us to identify virus-specific hits with a much lower false positive rate.
PMCID: PMC4657351  PMID: 26596270
15.  Second-Generation Sequencing Supply an Effective Way to Screen RNAi Targets in Large Scale for Potential Application in Pest Insect Control 
PLoS ONE  2011;6(4):e18644.
The key of RNAi approach success for potential insect pest control is mainly dependent on careful target selection and a convenient delivery system. We adopted second-generation sequencing technology to screen RNAi targets. Illumina's RNA-seq and digital gene expression tag profile (DGE-tag) technologies were used to screen optimal RNAi targets from Ostrinia furnalalis. Total 14690 stage specific genes were obtained which can be considered as potential targets, and 47 were confirmed by qRT-PCR. Ten larval stage specific expression genes were selected for RNAi test. When 50 ng/µl dsRNAs of the genes DS10 and DS28 were directly sprayed on the newly hatched larvae which placed on the filter paper, the larval mortalities were around 40∼50%, while the dsRNAs of ten genes were sprayed on the larvae along with artificial diet, the mortalities reached 73% to 100% at 5 d after treatment. The qRT-PCR analysis verified the correlation between larval mortality and the down-regulation of the target gene expression. Topically applied fluorescent dsRNA confirmed that dsRNA did penetrate the body wall and circulate in the body cavity. It seems likely that the combination of DGE-tag with RNA-seq is a rapid, high-throughput, cost less and an easy way to select the candidate target genes for RNAi. More importantly, it demonstrated that dsRNAs are able to penetrate the integument and cause larval developmental stunt and/or death in a lepidopteron insect. This finding largely broadens the target selection for RNAi from just gut-specific genes to the targets in whole insects and may lead to new strategies for designing RNAi-based technology against insect damage.
PMCID: PMC3073972  PMID: 21494551
16.  New Developments of RNAi in Paracoccidioides brasiliensis: Prospects for High-Throughput, Genome-Wide, Functional Genomics 
The Fungal Genome Initiative of the Broad Institute, in partnership with the Paracoccidioides research community, has recently sequenced the genome of representative isolates of this human-pathogen dimorphic fungus: Pb18 (S1), Pb03 (PS2) and Pb01. The accomplishment of future high-throughput, genome-wide, functional genomics will rely upon appropriate molecular tools and straightforward techniques to streamline the generation of stable loss-of-function phenotypes. In the past decades, RNAi has emerged as the most robust genetic technique to modulate or to suppress gene expression in diverse eukaryotes, including fungi. These molecular tools and techniques, adapted for RNAi, were up until now unavailable for P. brasiliensis.
Methodology/Principal Findings
In this paper, we report Agrobacterium tumefaciens mediated transformation of yeast cells for high-throughput applications with which higher transformation frequencies of 150±24 yeast cell transformants per 1×106 viable yeast cells were obtained. Our approach is based on a bifunctional selective marker fusion protein consisted of the Streptoalloteichus hindustanus bleomycin-resistance gene (Shble) and the intrinsically fluorescent monomeric protein mCherry which was codon-optimized for heterologous expression in P. brasiliensis. We also report successful GP43 gene knock-down through the expression of intron-containing hairpin RNA (ihpRNA) from a Gateway-adapted cassette (cALf) which was purpose-built for gene silencing in a high-throughput manner. Gp43 transcript levels were reduced by 73.1±22.9% with this approach.
We have a firm conviction that the genetic transformation technique and the molecular tools herein described will have a relevant contribution in future Paracoccidioides spp. functional genomics research.
Author Summary
Diverse eukaryotes, including various fungi, utilize RNA interference (RNAi) pathways to regulate genome-wide gene expression. Since the initial characterization of these pathways and the demonstration of its artificial induction in the filamentous ascomycete Neurospora crassa, RNAi has emerged as the most robust reverse-genetic technique to scrutinize the function of genes and has been increasingly adopted in high-throughput functional genomics in search of new insights into fungal pathobiology. Herein, we have developed appropriate molecular tools and straightforward techniques to streamline the generation of stable loss-of-function phenotypes for the human-pathogen Paracoccidioides brasiliensis, which is phylogenetically related to Blastomyces dermatitidis, Coccidioides immitis and Histoplasma capsulatum. Likewise these thermo-dimorphic fungi, P. brasiliensis infection in immunocompetent or immunocompromised individuals ensue in a life-threatening systemic mycosis known as Paracoccidioidomycosis.
PMCID: PMC4183473  PMID: 25275433
17.  Emergence of Chemical Biology Approaches to the RNAi/miRNA Pathway 
Chemistry & biology  2010;17(6):584-589.
RNA interference (RNAi) is a well-conserved mechanism that uses small noncoding RNAs to silence gene expression posttranscriptionally. Gene regulation by RNAi is now recognized as one of the major regulatory pathways in eukaryotic cells. Although the main components of the RNAi/miRNA pathway have been identified, the molecular mechanisms regulating the activity of the RNAi/miRNA pathway have only begun to emerge within the last couple of years. Recently, high-throughput reporter assays to monitor the activity of the RNAi/miRNA pathway have been developed and used for proof-of-concept pilot screens. Both inhibitors and activators of the RNAi/miRNA pathway have been found. Although still in its infancy, a chemical biology approach using high-throughput chemical screens should open up a new avenue for dissecting the RNAi/miRNA pathway, as well as developing novel RNAi- or miRNA-based therapeutic interventions.
PMCID: PMC2901241  PMID: 20609408
18.  Gene Network Polymorphism Illuminates Loss and Retention of Novel RNAi Silencing Components in the Cryptococcus Pathogenic Species Complex 
PLoS Genetics  2016;12(3):e1005868.
RNAi is a ubiquitous pathway that serves central functions throughout eukaryotes, including maintenance of genome stability and repression of transposon expression and movement. However, a number of organisms have lost their RNAi pathways, including the model yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the maize pathogen Ustilago maydis, the human pathogen Cryptococcus deuterogattii, and some human parasite pathogens, suggesting there may be adaptive benefits associated with both retention and loss of RNAi. By comparing the RNAi-deficient genome of the Pacific Northwest Outbreak C. deuterogattii strain R265 with the RNAi-proficient genomes of the Cryptococcus pathogenic species complex, we identified a set of conserved genes that were lost in R265 and all other C. deuterogattii isolates examined. Genetic and molecular analyses reveal several of these lost genes play roles in RNAi pathways. Four novel components were examined further. Znf3 (a zinc finger protein) and Qip1 (a homolog of N. crassa Qip) were found to be essential for RNAi, while Cpr2 (a constitutive pheromone receptor) and Fzc28 (a transcription factor) are involved in sex-induced but not mitosis-induced silencing. Our results demonstrate that the mitotic and sex-induced RNAi pathways rely on the same core components, but sex-induced silencing may be a more specific, highly induced variant that involves additional specialized or regulatory components. Our studies further illustrate how gene network polymorphisms involving known components of key cellular pathways can inform identification of novel elements and suggest that RNAi loss may have been a core event in the speciation of C. deuterogattii and possibly contributed to its pathogenic trajectory.
Author Summary
Genome instability and mutations provoked by transposon movement are counteracted by novel defense mechanisms in organisms as diverse as fungi, plants, and mammals. In the human fungal pathogen Cryptococcus neoformans, an RNAi silencing pathway operates to defend the genome against mobile elements and transgene repeats. RNAi silencing pathways are conserved in the Cryptococcus pathogenic species complex and are mediated by canonical RNAi components. Surprisingly, several of these components are missing from all analyzed C. deuterogattii VGII strains, the molecular type responsible for the North American Pacific Northwest outbreak. To identify novel components of the RNAi pathways, we surveyed the reference genomes of C. deuterogattii, C. gattii, C. neoformans, and C. deneoformans. We identified 14 otherwise conserved genes missing in R265, including the RDP1, AGO1, and DCR1 canonical RNAi components, and focused on four potentially novel RNAi components: ZNF3, QIP1, CPR2, and FZC28. We found that Znf3 and Qip1 are both required for mitotic- and sex-induced silencing, while Cpr2 and Fzc28 contribute to sex-induced but not mitosis-induced silencing. Our studies reveal elements of RNAi pathways that operate to defend the genome during sexual development and vegetative growth and illustrate the power of network polymorphisms to illuminate novel components of biological pathways.
PMCID: PMC4778953  PMID: 26943821
19.  Quantitative and Automated High-throughput Genome-wide RNAi Screens in C. elegans 
RNA interference is a powerful method to understand gene function, especially when conducted at a whole-genome scale and in a quantitative context. In C. elegans, gene function can be knocked down simply and efficiently by feeding worms with bacteria expressing a dsRNA corresponding to a specific gene 1. While the creation of libraries of RNAi clones covering most of the C. elegans genome 2,3 opened the way for true functional genomic studies (see for example 4-7), most established methods are laborious. Moy and colleagues have developed semi-automated protocols that facilitate genome-wide screens 8. The approach relies on microscopic imaging and image analysis.
Here we describe an alternative protocol for a high-throughput genome-wide screen, based on robotic handling of bacterial RNAi clones, quantitative analysis using the COPAS Biosort (Union Biometrica (UBI)), and an integrated software: the MBioLIMS (Laboratory Information Management System from Modul-Bio) a technology that provides increased throughput for data management and sample tracking. The method allows screens to be conducted on solid medium plates. This is particularly important for some studies, such as those addressing host-pathogen interactions in C. elegans, since certain microbes do not efficiently infect worms in liquid culture.
We show how the method can be used to quantify the importance of genes in anti-fungal innate immunity in C. elegans. In this case, the approach relies on the use of a transgenic strain carrying an epidermal infection-inducible fluorescent reporter gene, with GFP under the control of the promoter of the antimicrobial peptide gene nlp 29 and a red fluorescent reporter that is expressed constitutively in the epidermis. The latter provides an internal control for the functional integrity of the epidermis and nonspecific transgene silencing9. When control worms are infected by the fungus they fluoresce green. Knocking down by RNAi a gene required for nlp 29 expression results in diminished fluorescence after infection. Currently, this protocol allows more than 3,000 RNAi clones to be tested and analyzed per week, opening the possibility of screening the entire genome in less than 2 months.
PMCID: PMC3399495  PMID: 22395785
Molecular Biology;  Issue 60;  C. elegans;  fluorescent reporter;  Biosort;  LIMS;  innate immunity;  Drechmeria coniospora
20.  Generation of RNAi Libraries for High-Throughput Screens 
The completion of the genome sequencing for several organisms has created a great demand for genomic tools that can systematically analyze the growing wealth of data. In contrast to the classical reverse genetics approach of creating specific knockout cell lines or animals that is time-consuming and expensive, RNA-mediated interference (RNAi) has emerged as a fast, simple, and cost-effective technique for gene knockdown in large scale. Since its discovery as a gene silencing response to double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) with homology to endogenous genes in Caenorhabditis elegans (C elegans), RNAi technology has been adapted to various high-throughput screens (HTS) for genome-wide loss-of-function (LOF) analysis. Biochemical insights into the endogenous mechanism of RNAi have led to advances in RNAi methodology including RNAi molecule synthesis, delivery, and sequence design. In this article, we will briefly review these various RNAi library designs and discuss the benefits and drawbacks of each library strategy.
PMCID: PMC1559919  PMID: 17057364
21.  Rapid, Cell-Based Toxicity Screen of Potentially Therapeutic Post-Transcriptional Gene Silencing Agents 
Experimental Eye Research  2011;92(5):328-337.
Post-transcriptional gene silencing (PTGS) agents such as antisense, ribozymes and RNA interference (RNAi) have great potential as therapeutics for a variety of eye diseases including retinal and macular degenerations, glaucoma, corneal degenerations, inflammatory and viral conditions. Despite their great potential and over thirty years of academic and corporate research only a single PTGS agent is currently approved for human therapy for a single disease. Substantial challenges exist to achieving both efficacious and safe PTGS agents. Efficacy, as measured in specific target mRNA and protein knockdown, depends upon a number of complex factors including the identification of rare regions of target mRNA accessibility, cellular colocalization of the PTGS agent in sufficient concentration with the target mRNA, and stability of the PTGS agent in the target cells in which it is delivered or expressed. Safety is commonly measured by lack of cytotoxicity or other deleterious cellular responses in cells in which the PTGS agent is delivered or expressed. To relieve major bottlenecks in RNA drug discovery novel, efficient, inexpensive, and rapid tools are needed to facilitate lead identification of the most efficacious PTGS agent, rational optimization of efficacy of the lead agent, and lead agent safety determinations. We have developed a technological platform using cell culture expression systems that permits lead identification and efficacy optimization of PTGS agents against arbitrary disease target mRNAs under relatively high throughput conditions. Here, we extend the technology platform to include PTGS safety determinations in cultured human cells that are expected to represent the common cellular housekeeping microenvironment. We developed a high throughput screening (HTS) cytotoxicity assay in 96-well plate format based around the SYTOX Green dye which is excluded from healthy viable cells and becomes substantially fluorescent only after entering cells and binding to nuclear DNA. In this format we can test a number of PTGS agents for cellular toxicity relative to control elements. We also developed a HTS 96-well plate assay that allows us to assess the impact of any given PTGS agent on stimulating a variety of common cellular stress signaling pathways (e.g. CRE, SRE, AP-1, NFκB, Myc, and NFAT) that could indicate possible deleterious effects of PTGS agents either dependent or independent of base pairing complementarity with target mRNAs. To this end we exploited the secreted alkaline phosphatase (SEAP) Pathway Profiling System where the expression of the secreted reporter protein is coupled to transcriptional activation of a variety of promoter elements involved in common cell signaling pathways. We found that a variety of lead hammerhead ribozyme (hhRz) and short hairpin (shRNA) expression constructs did not exert cytotoxicity in human cells when driven by highly active RNA Pol-III promoters. We also found that most of the cell signaling pathways tested (CRE, SRE, Myc, and NFAT) did not significantly couple through upregulation to expression of the set of PTGS agents tested. AP-1 and NFκB upregulation both appear to couple to the expression of some PTGS agents which likely reflect the known properties of these pathways to be stimulated by abundant small structured RNAs.
PMCID: PMC3388980  PMID: 21256844
post-transcriptional gene silencing; high throughput screening
22.  Analysis of high-throughput RNAi screening data in identifying genes mediating sensitivity to chemotherapeutic drugs: statistical approaches and perspectives 
BMC Genomics  2012;13(Suppl 8):S3.
High-throughput RNA interference (RNAi) screens have been used to find genes that, when silenced, result in sensitivity to certain chemotherapy drugs. Researchers therefore can further identify drug-sensitive targets and novel drug combinations that sensitize cancer cells to chemotherapeutic drugs. Considerable uncertainty exists about the efficiency and accuracy of statistical approaches used for RNAi hit selection in drug sensitivity studies. Researchers require statistical methods suitable for analyzing high-throughput RNAi screening data that will reduce false-positive and false-negative rates.
In this study, we carried out a simulation study to evaluate four types of statistical approaches (fold-change/ratio, parametric tests/statistics, sensitivity index, and linear models) with different scenarios of RNAi screenings for drug sensitivity studies. With the simulated datasets, the linear model resulted in significantly lower false-negative and false-positive rates. Based on the results of the simulation study, we then make recommendations of statistical analysis methods for high-throughput RNAi screening data in different scenarios. We assessed promising methods using real data from a loss-of-function RNAi screen to identify hits that modulate paclitaxel sensitivity in breast cancer cells. High-confidence hits with specific inhibitors were further analyzed for their ability to inhibit breast cancer cell growth. Our analysis identified a number of gene targets with inhibitors known to enhance paclitaxel sensitivity, suggesting other genes identified may merit further investigation.
RNAi screening can identify druggable targets and novel drug combinations that can sensitize cancer cells to chemotherapeutic drugs. However, applying an inappropriate statistical method or model to the RNAi screening data will result in decreased power to detect the true hits and increase false positive and false negative rates, leading researchers to draw incorrect conclusions. In this paper, we make recommendations to enable more objective selection of statistical analysis methods for high-throughput RNAi screening data.
PMCID: PMC3535706  PMID: 23281588
23.  Manipulating and enhancing the RNAi response 
The phenomenon that is known as RNA mediated interference (RNAi) was first observed in the nematode C. elegans. The application of RNAi has now been widely disseminated and the mechanisms underlying the pathway have been uncovered using both genetics and biochemistry. In the worm, it has been demonstrated that RNAi is easily adapted to high throughput analysis and screening protocols. Hence, given the availability of whole genome sequences, RNAi has been used extensively as a tool for annotating gene function. Genetic screens performed with C. elegans have also led to the identification of genes that are essential for RNAi or that modulate the RNAi process. The identification of such genes has made it possible to manipulate and enhance the RNAi response. Moreover, many of the genes identified in C. elegans have been conserved in other organisms. Thus, opportunities are available for researchers to take advantage of the insights gained from the worm and apply them to their own systems in order to improve the efficiency and potency of the RNAi response.
PMCID: PMC2737212  PMID: 19771213
C. elegans; RdRP; RNA interference; siRNA; systemic RNAi
24.  Synthetic feedback control using an RNAi-based gene-regulatory device 
Homeostasis within mammalian cells is achieved through complex molecular networks that can respond to changes within the cell or the environment and regulate the expression of the appropriate genes in response. The development of biological components that can respond to changes in the cellular environment and interface with endogenous molecules would enable more sophisticated genetic circuits and greatly advance our cellular engineering capabilities.
Here we describe a platform that combines a ligand-responsive ribozyme switch and synthetic miRNA regulators to create an OFF genetic control device based on RNA interference (RNAi). We developed a mathematical model to highlight important design parameters in programming the quantitative performance of RNAi-based OFF control devices. By modifying the ribozyme switch integrated into the system, we demonstrated RNAi-based OFF control devices that respond to small molecule and protein ligands, including the oncogenic protein E2F1. We utilized the OFF control device platform to build a negative feedback control system that acts as a proportional controller and maintains target intracellular protein levels in response to increases in transcription rate.
Our work describes a novel genetic device that increases the level of silencing from a miRNA in the presence of a ligand of interest, effectively creating an RNAi-based OFF control device. The OFF switch platform has the flexibility to be used to respond to both small molecule and protein ligands. Finally, the RNAi-based OFF switch can be used to implement a negative feedback control system, which maintains target protein levels around a set point level. The described RNAi-based OFF control device presents a powerful tool that will enable researchers to engineer homeostasis in mammalian cells.
Electronic supplementary material
The online version of this article (doi:10.1186/s13036-015-0002-3) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
PMCID: PMC4403951  PMID: 25897323
MicroRNA; Ribozyme; Feedback control; Synthetic biology
25.  NEMix: Single-cell Nested Effects Models for Probabilistic Pathway Stimulation 
PLoS Computational Biology  2015;11(4):e1004078.
Nested effects models have been used successfully for learning subcellular networks from high-dimensional perturbation effects that result from RNA interference (RNAi) experiments. Here, we further develop the basic nested effects model using high-content single-cell imaging data from RNAi screens of cultured cells infected with human rhinovirus. RNAi screens with single-cell readouts are becoming increasingly common, and they often reveal high cell-to-cell variation. As a consequence of this cellular heterogeneity, knock-downs result in variable effects among cells and lead to weak average phenotypes on the cell population level. To address this confounding factor in network inference, we explicitly model the stimulation status of a signaling pathway in individual cells. We extend the framework of nested effects models to probabilistic combinatorial knock-downs and propose NEMix, a nested effects mixture model that accounts for unobserved pathway activation. We analyzed the identifiability of NEMix and developed a parameter inference scheme based on the Expectation Maximization algorithm. In an extensive simulation study, we show that NEMix improves learning of pathway structures over classical NEMs significantly in the presence of hidden pathway stimulation. We applied our model to single-cell imaging data from RNAi screens monitoring human rhinovirus infection, where limited infection efficiency of the assay results in uncertain pathway stimulation. Using a subset of genes with known interactions, we show that the inferred NEMix network has high accuracy and outperforms the classical nested effects model without hidden pathway activity. NEMix is implemented as part of the R/Bioconductor package ‘nem’ and available at
Author Summary
Experiments monitoring individual cells show that cells can behave differently even under same experimental conditions. Summarizing measurements over a population of cells can lead to weak and widely deviating signals, and subsequently applied modeling approaches, like network inference, will suffer from this information loss. Nested effects models, a method tailored to reconstruct signaling networks from high-dimensional read-outs of gene silencing experiments, have so far been only applied on the cell population level. These models assume the pathway under consideration to be activated in all cells. The signal flow is only disrupted, when genes are silenced. However, if this assumption is not met, inference results can be incorrect, because observed effects are interpreted wrongly. We extended nested effects models, to use the power of single-cell resolution data sets. We introduce a new unobserved factor, which describes the pathway activity of single cells. The pathway activity is learned for each cell during network inference. We apply our model to gene silencing screens, investigating human rhino virus infection of single cells from microscopy imaging features. Comparing the learned network to the known KEGG pathway of the genes shows that our method recovers networks significantly better than classical nested effects models without capturing of hidden signaling.
PMCID: PMC4400057  PMID: 25879530

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