Many RNAs, including pre-mRNAs and long non-coding RNAs, can be thousands of nucleotides long and undergo complex post-transcriptional processing. Multiple sites of alternative splicing within a single gene exponentially increase the number of possible spliced isoforms, with most human genes currently estimated to express at least ten. To understand the mechanisms underlying these complex isoform expression patterns, methods are needed that faithfully maintain long-range exon connectivity information in individual RNA molecules. In this study, we describe SeqZip, a methodology that uses RNA-templated DNA–DNA ligation to retain and compress connectivity between distant sequences within single RNA molecules. Using this assay, we test proposed coordination between distant sites of alternative exon utilization in mouse Fn1, and we characterize the extraordinary exon diversity of Drosophila melanogaster Dscam1.
A flow chart can show how an outcome can be achieved from a particular start point by breaking down an activity into a list of possible steps. Often, a flow chart contains several alternative steps, not all of which are taken every time the flow chart is used. The same can be said of genes, which are biological instructions that often contain many options within their DNA sequences.
Proteins—which perform many roles in cells—are built following the instructions contained in genes. First, the DNA sequence of the gene is copied. This produces a molecule of ribonucleic acid (RNA), which is able to move around the cell to find the machinery that can use the genetic information to make a protein. Genes and their RNA copies contain instructions with more steps—called exons—than are necessary to make a working protein, so extra exons are removed (‘spliced’) from the RNA copies. Different combinations of exons can be removed, so splicing can make different versions of the RNA called isoforms. These allow a single gene to build many different proteins. In fruit flies, for example, the different exons of the gene Dscam1 can be spliced into one of 38,016 unique RNA isoforms.
Current technology only allows researchers to deduce the sequence of RNA molecules by combining sequences recorded from short fragments of the molecule. However, before splicing, RNA molecules tend to be much longer than this, so this restricts our understanding of the RNA isoforms found in cells. Here, Roy et al. devised and tested a new method called SeqZip to solve this problem.
SeqZip uses short fragments of DNA called ligamers that can only stick to the sections of RNA that will remain after the molecule has been spliced. After splicing, the ligamers can be stuck together to make a DNA replica of the spliced RNA. The end product is at least 49 times shorter than the original RNA, so it is easier to sequence. In addition, the combinations of the ligamers in the DNA replica show which exons of a specific gene are kept and which ones are spliced out.
To test the method, Roy et al. studied a mouse gene that has six RNA isoforms. SeqZip reduced the length of the RNA by five times and made it possible to measure how frequently the different isoforms naturally arise. Roy et al. also used SeqZip to work out which isoforms of the Dscam1 gene are used at different stages in the life of fruit fly larvae. SeqZip can provide insights into how complex organisms like flies, mice, and humans have evolved with relatively few—a little over 20,000—genes in their genomes.