Based on a simple model of the mRNA life cycle, we predict that mRNAs with high turnover rates in the cell are more difficult to perturb with RNAi.We test this hypothesis using a luciferase reporter system and obtain additional evidence from a variety of large-scale data sets, including microRNA overexpression experiments and RT–qPCR-based efficacy measurements for thousands of siRNAs.Our results suggest that mRNA half-lives will influence how mRNAs are differentially perturbed whenever small RNA levels change in the cell, not only after transfection but also during differentiation, pathogenesis and normal cell physiology.
What determines how strongly an mRNA responds to a microRNA or an siRNA? We know that properties of the sequence match between the small RNA and the mRNA are crucial. However, large-scale validations of siRNA efficacies have shown that certain transcripts remain recalcitrant to perturbation even after repeated redesign of the siRNA (Krueger et al, 2007). Weak response to RNAi may thus be an inherent property of the mRNA, but the underlying factors have proven difficult to uncover.
siRNAs induce degradation by sequence-specific cleavage of their target mRNAs (Elbashir et al, 2001). MicroRNAs, too, induce mRNA degradation, and ∼80% of their effect on protein levels can be explained by changes in transcript abundance (Hendrickson et al, 2009; Guo et al, 2010). Given that multiple factors act simultaneously to degrade individual mRNAs, we here consider whether variable responses to micro/siRNA regulation may, in part, be explained simply by the basic dynamics of mRNA turnover. If a transcript is already under strong destabilizing regulation, it is theoretically possible that the relative change in abundance after the addition of a novel degrading factor would be less pronounced compared with a stable transcript (Figure 1). mRNA turnover is achieved by a multitude of factors, and the influence of such factors on targetability can be explored. However, their combined action, including yet unknown factors, is summarized into a single property: the mRNA decay rate.
First, we explored the theoretical relationship between the pre-existing turnover rate of an mRNA, and its expected susceptibility to perturbation by a small RNA. We assumed a basic model of the mRNA life cycle, in which the rate of transcription is constant and the rate of degradation is described by first-order kinetics. Under this model, the relative change in steady-state expression level will become smaller as the pre-existing decay rate grows larger, independent of the transcription rate. This relationship persists also if we assume various degrees of synergy and antagonism between the pre-existing factors and the external factor, with increasing synergism leading to transcripts being more equally targetable, regardless of their pre-existing decay rate.
We next generated a series of four luciferase reporter constructs with destabilizing AU-rich elements (AREs) of various strengths incorporated into their 3′ UTRs. To evaluate how the different constructs would respond to perturbation, we performed co-transfections with an siRNA targeted at the coding region of the luciferase gene. This reduced the signal of the non-destabilized construct to 26% compared with a control siRNA. In contrast, the most destabilized construct showed 42% remaining reporter activity, and we could observe a dose–response relationship across the series.
The reporter experiment encouraged an investigation of this effect on real-world mRNAs. We analyzed a set of 2622 siRNAs, for which individual efficacies were determined using RT–qPCR 48 h post-transfection in HeLa cells (www.appliedbiosystems.com). Of these, 1778 could be associated with an experimentally determined decay rate (Figure 4A). Although the overall correlation between the two variables was modest (Spearman's rank correlation rs=0.22, P<1e−20), we found that siRNAs directed at high-turnover (t1/2<200 min) and medium-turnover (2001000 min) transcripts (P<8e−11 and 4e−9, respectively, two-tailed KS-test, Figure 4B). While 41.6% (498/1196) of the siRNAs directed at low-turnover transcripts reached 10% remaining expression or better, only 16.7% (31/186) of the siRNAs that targeted high-turnover mRNAs reached this high degree of silencing (Figure 4B). Reduced targetability (25.2%, 100/396) was also seen for transcripts with medium-turnover rate.
Our results based on siRNA data suggested that turnover rates could also influence microRNA targeting. By assembling genome-wide mRNA expression data from 20 published microRNA transfections in HeLa cells, we found that predicted target mRNAs with short and medium half-life were significantly less repressed after transfection than their long-lived counterparts (P<8e−5 and P<0.03, respectively, two-tailed KS-test). Specifically, 10.2% (293/2874) of long-lived targets versus 4.4% (41/942) of short-lived targets were strongly (z-score <−3) repressed. siRNAs are known to cause off-target effects that are mediated, in part, by microRNA-like seed complementarity (Jackson et al, 2006). We analyzed changes in transcript levels after transfection of seven different siRNAs, each with a unique seed region (Jackson et al, 2006). Putative ‘off-targets' were identified by mapping of non-conserved seed matches in 3′ UTRs. We found that low-turnover mRNAs (t1/2 >1000 min) were more affected by seed-mediated off-target silencing than high-turnover mRNAs (t1/2 <200 min), with twice as many long-lived seed-containing transcripts (3.8 versus 1.9%) being strongly (z-score <−3) repressed.
In summary, mRNA turnover rates have an important influence on the changes exerted by small RNAs on mRNA levels. It can be assumed that mRNA half-lives will influence how mRNAs are differentially perturbed whenever small RNA levels change in the cell, not only after transfection but also during differentiation, pathogenesis and normal cell physiology.
The microRNA pathway participates in basic cellular processes and its discovery has enabled the development of si/shRNAs as powerful investigational tools and potential therapeutics. Based on a simple kinetic model of the mRNA life cycle, we hypothesized that mRNAs with high turnover rates may be more resistant to RNAi-mediated silencing. The results of a simple reporter experiment strongly supported this hypothesis. We followed this with a genome-wide scale analysis of a rich corpus of experiments, including RT–qPCR validation data for thousands of siRNAs, siRNA/microRNA overexpression data and mRNA stability data. We find that short-lived transcripts are less affected by microRNA overexpression, suggesting that microRNA target prediction would be improved if mRNA turnover rates were considered. Similarly, short-lived transcripts are more difficult to silence using siRNAs, and our results may explain why certain transcripts are inherently recalcitrant to perturbation by small RNAs.