Piwi proteins, together with their bound Piwi-interacting RNAs, constitute an evolutionarily conserved, germline-specific innate immune system. The piRNA pathway is one of the key mechanisms for silencing transposable elements in the germline, thereby preserving genome integrity between generations. Recent work from several groups has significantly advanced our understanding of how piRNAs arise from discrete genomic loci, termed piRNA clusters, and how these Piwi-piRNA complexes enforce transposon silencing. Here, we discuss these recent findings, as well as highlight some aspects of piRNA biology that continue to escape our understanding.
A large fraction of our genome consists of mobile genetic elements. Governing transposons in germ cells is critically important, and failure to do so compromises genome integrity, leading to sterility. In animals, the piRNA pathway is the key to transposon constraint, yet the precise molecular details of how piRNAs are formed and how the pathway represses mobile elements remain poorly understood. In an effort to identify general requirements for transposon control and novel components of the piRNA pathway, we carried out a genome-wide RNAi screen in Drosophila ovarian somatic sheet cells. We identified and validated 87 genes necessary for transposon silencing. Among these were several novel piRNA biogenesis factors. We also found CG3893 (asterix) to be essential for transposon silencing, most likely by contributing to the effector step of transcriptional repression. Asterix loss leads to decreases in H3K9me3 marks on certain transposons but has no effect on piRNA levels.
The Drosophila piRNA pathway provides an RNA-based immune system that defends the germline genome against selfish genetic elements. Two inter-related branches of the piRNA system exist: somatic cells that support oogenesis only employ Piwi, whereas germ cells utilize a more elaborated pathway centered on the three gonad-specific Argonaute proteins Piwi, Aubergine, and Argonaute3. While several key factors of each branch have been identified, our current knowledge is insufficient to explain the complex workings of the piRNA machinery. Here, we report a reverse genetic screen spanning the ovarian transcriptome in an attempt to uncover the full repertoire of genes required for piRNA-mediated transposon silencing in the female germline. Our screen reveals new key factors of piRNA-mediated transposon silencing, including the novel piRNA biogenesis factors, CG2183 (GASZ) and Deadlock. Last, our data uncovers a previously unanticipated set of factors preferentially required for repression of different transposons types.
Drosophila; RNAi; piRNA pathway; transposon silencing; germ cells
Motivation: Post-transcriptional and co-transcriptional regulation is a crucial link between genotype and phenotype. The central players are the RNA-binding proteins, and experimental technologies [such as cross-linking with immunoprecipitation- (CLIP-) and RIP-seq] for probing their activities have advanced rapidly over the course of the past decade. Statistically robust, flexible computational methods for binding site identification from high-throughput immunoprecipitation assays are largely lacking however.
Results: We introduce a method for site identification which provides four key advantages over previous methods: (i) it can be applied on all variations of CLIP and RIP-seq technologies, (ii) it accurately models the underlying read-count distributions, (iii) it allows external covariates, such as transcript abundance (which we demonstrate is highly correlated with read count) to inform the site identification process and (iv) it allows for direct comparison of site usage across cell types or conditions.
Availability and implementation: We have implemented our method in a software tool called Piranha. Source code and binaries, licensed under the GNU General Public License (version 3) are freely available for download from http://smithlab.usc.edu.
Supplementary data available at Bioinformatics online.
Argonaute proteins lie at the heart of all RNAi-related effector complexes. Their PAZ domain recognizes small RNA targets; the PIWI domain is related to RNase H and responsible for target cleavage.
RNAi has existed at least since the divergence of prokaryotes and eukaryotes. This collection of pathways responds to a diversity of “abberant” RNAs and generally silences or eliminates genes sharing sequence content with the silencing trigger. In the canonical pathway, double-stranded RNAs are processed into small RNAs, which guide effector complexes to their targets by complementary base pairing. Many alternative routes from silencing trigger to small RNA are continuously being uncovered. Though the triggers of the pathway and the mechanisms of small RNA production are many, all RNAi-related mechanisms share Argonaute proteins as the heart of their effector complexes. These can act as self-contained silencing machines, binding directly to small RNAs, carrying out homology-based target recognition, and in some cases cleaving targets using an endogenous nuclease domain. Here, we discuss the diversity of Argonaute proteins from a structural and functional perspective.
Argonautes are the central protein component in small RNA silencing pathways. Of the four human Argonautes (hAgo1–4) only hAgo2 is an active slicer. We determined the structure of hAgo1 bound to endogenous copurified RNAs to 1.75 Å resolution and hAgo1 loaded with let-7 miRNA to 2.1 Å. Both structures are strikingly similar to the structures of hAgo2. A conserved catalytic tetrad within the PIWI domain of hAgo2 is required for its slicing activity. Completion of the tetrad combined with a mutation on a loop adjacent to the active site of hAgo1 results in slicer activity that is substantially enhanced by swapping in the N domain of hAgo2. hAgo3, with an intact tetrad, becomes an active slicer by swapping the N domain of hAgo2, without additional mutations. Intriguingly, the elements that make Argonaute an active slicer involve a sophisticated interplay between the active site and more distant regions of the enzyme.
Eukaryotic genomes harbor transposable elements and other repetitive sequences that must be silenced. Small RNA interference pathways play a major role in their repression. Here, we reveal another mechanism for silencing these sequences in Drosophila. Depleting the linker histone H1 in vivo leads to strong activation of these elements. H1-mediated silencing occurs in combination with the heterochromatin-specific histone H3 lysine 9 methyltransferase Su(var)3-9. H1 physically interacts with Su(var)3-9 and recruits it to chromatin in vitro, which promotes H3 methylation. We propose that H1 plays a key role in silencing by tethering Su(var)3-9 to heterochromatin. The tethering function of H1 adds to its established role as a regulator of chromatin compaction and accessibility.
RNA interference (RNAi) is an extremely effective tool for studying gene function in almost all metazoan and eukaryotic model systems. RNAi in mice, through the expression of short hairpin RNA s (shRNA s), offers something not easily achieved with traditional genetic approaches—inducible and reversible gene silencing. However, technical variability associated with the production of shRNA transgenic strains has so far limited their widespread use. Here we describe a pipeline for the generation of miR30-based shRNA transgenic mice that enables efficient and consistent targeting of doxycycline-regulated, fluorescence-linked shRNA s to the Col1a1 locus. Notably, the protocol details crucial steps in the design and testing of miR30-based shRNA s to maximize the potential for developing effective transgenic strains. In all, this 14-week procedure provides a fast and cost-effective way for any laboratory to investigate gene function in vivo in the mouse.
Small RNAs directly or indirectly impact nearly every biological process in eukaryotic cells. To perform their myriad roles, not only must precise small RNA species be generated, but they must also be loaded into specific effector complexes called RNA-induced silencing complexes (RISCs). Argonaute proteins form the core of RISCs and different members of this large family have specific expression patterns, protein binding partners and biochemical capabilities. In this Review, we explore the mechanisms that pair specific small RNA strands with their partner proteins, with an eye towards the substantial progress that has been recently made in understanding the sorting of the major small RNA classes — microRNAs (miRNAs) and small interfering RNAs (siRNAs) — in plants and animals.
MicroRNAs (miRNAs) regulate mRNA targets through perfect pairing with their seed region (position 2-7). Recently, a precise genome-wide map of miRNA interaction sites in mouse brain was generated by high-throughput sequencing of clusters of ~50 nucleotide RNA tags associated with Argonaute (Ago HITS-CLIP). By analyzing Ago HITS-CLIP “orphan clusters” – Ago binding regions from HITS-CLIP that cannot be explained by canonical seed matches – we have identified an alternative binding mode used by miRNAs. Specifically, G-bulge sites (position 5-6) are often bound and regulated by miR-124 in brain. More generally, bulged sites comprise ≥ 15% (≥ 1441 sites) of all Ago-miRNA interactions in mouse brain and are evolutionally conserved. We have termed position 6 the “pivot” nucleotide and suggest a model in which a transitional “nucleation-bulge” leads to functional bulge mRNA-miRNA interactions, expanding the number of potential miRNA regulatory sites.
RNA interference (RNAi) enables sequence-specific, experimentally induced silencing of almost any gene by tapping into innate regulatory mechanisms that are conserved among virtually all eukaryotes. In a typical RNAi experiment, an artificial silencing trigger directs the RNAi pathway toward a target that it would not normally recognize. This is most often an endogenous protein-coding gene, although some noncoding RNAs can also be silenced effectively. The artificial silencing trigger varies; this protocol uses synthetic small interfering RNAs (siRNAs). Lipofectamine 2000 is used to deliver the siRNAs into HEK293 cells. This lipid reagent has proven to be effective for many different cultured mammalian cell lines.
The challenge of understanding the widespread biological roles of animal microRNAs (miRNAs) has prompted the development of genetic and functional genomics technologies for miRNA loss-of-function studies. However, tools for exploring the functions of entire miRNA families are still limited. We developed a method that enables antagonism of miRNA function using seed-targeting 8-mer locked nucleic acid (LNA) oligonucleotides, termed tiny LNAs. Transfection of tiny LNAs into cells resulted in simultaneous inhibition of miRNAs within families sharing the same seed with concomitant upregulation of direct targets. In addition, systemically delivered, unconjugated tiny LNAs showed uptake in many normal tissues and in breast tumors in mice, coinciding with long-term miRNA silencing. Transcriptional and proteomic profiling suggested that tiny LNAs have negligible off-target effects, not significantly altering the output from mRNAs with perfect tiny LNA complementary sites. Considered together, these data support the utility of tiny LNAs in elucidating the functions of miRNA families in vivo.
Argonaute proteins lie at the heart of the RNA-induced silencing complex (RISC), wherein they use small RNA guides to recognize targets. Initial insight into the architecture of Argonautes came from studies of prokaryotic proteins, revealing a crescent-shaped base made up of the amino-terminal, PAZ, middle, and PIWI domains. The recently reported crystal structure of human Argonaute-2 (hAgo2), the “slicer” in RNA interference, in complex with a mixed population of RNAs derived from insect cells provides insight into the architecture of a eukaryotic Argonaute protein with defined biochemical and biological functions. Here, we report the structure of human Ago2 bound to a physiologically relevant microRNA, microRNA-20a, at 2.2 Å resolution. The miRNA is anchored at both ends by the Mid and PAZ domains and makes several kinks and turns along the binding groove. Interestingly, miRNA binding confers remarkable stability on hAgo2, locking this otherwise flexible enzyme into a stable conformation.
Existing transgenic RNAi resources in Drosophila melanogaster based on long double-stranded hairpin RNAs are powerful tools for functional studies, but they are ineffective in gene knockdown during oogenesis, an important model system for the study of many biological questions. We show that shRNAs, modeled on an endogenous microRNA, are extremely effective at silencing gene expression during oogenesis. We also describe our progress toward building a genome-wide shRNA resource.
Merkel cell polyomavirus (MCPyV) is present in approximately 80% of human Merkel cell carcinomas (MCCs). A previous in silico prediction suggested MCPyV encodes a microRNA (miRNA) that may regulate cellular and viral genes.
To determine the presence and prevalence of a putative MCPyV-encoded miRNA in human MCC tumors.
Over 30 million small RNAs from 7 cryopreserved MCC tumors and 1 perilesional sample were sequenced. 45 additional MCC tumors were examined for expression of an MCPyV-encoded mature miRNA by reverse transcription real-time PCR.
An MCPyV-encoded mature miRNA, “MCV-miR-M1-5p”, was detected by direct sequencing in 2 of 3 MCPyV-positive MCC tumors. Although a precursor miRNA, MCV-miR-M1, had been predicted in silico and studied in vitro by Seo et al., no MCPyV-encoded miRNAs have been directly detected in human tissues. Importantly, the mature sequence of MCV-miR-M1 found in vivo was identical in all 79 reads obtained but differed from the in silico predicted mature miRNA by a 2-nucleotide shift, resulting in a distinct seed region and a different set of predicted target genes. This mature miRNA was detected by real-time PCR in 50% of MCPyV-positive MCCs (n=38) and in 0% of MCPyV-negative MCCs (n=13).
MCV-miR-M1-5p is expressed at low levels in 50% of MCPyV-positive MCCs. This virus-encoded miRNA is predicted to target genes that may play a role in promoting immune evasion and regulating viral DNA replication.
MCV-miR-M1; Merkel cell polyomavirus; Merkel cell carcinoma; microRNA
RNA interference (RNAi) is a critical component of many cellular antiviral responses in plants, invertebrates, and mammals. However, its in vivo role in host protection from the negative-sense RNA virus influenza virus type A (flu) is unclear. Here we have examined the role of RNAi in host defense to flu by analyzing Argonaute 1 and 3 double-knockout mice deficient in components of the RNA-induced silencing complex. Compared to littermate controls, flu-infected double-knockout mice exhibited increased mortality, consistent with more severe alveolitis and pneumonitis. These data indicate that optimal resistance to flu requires Argonaute 1 and/or 3. Enhanced mortality of double-knockout mice was not associated either with increased viral replication or with differential pulmonary recruitment or function of innate and adaptive immune cells. Given the absence of detectable immune defects, our results support the notion that the enhanced flu susceptibility of double-knockout mice arises from an intrinsic impairment in the ability of lung cells to tolerate flu-elicited inflammation.
DNA methylation has been implicated as an epigenetic component of mechanisms that stabilize cell-fate decisions. Here, we have characterized the methylomes of human female hematopoietic stem/progenitor cells (HSPCs) and mature cells from the myeloid and lymphoid lineages. Hypomethylated regions (HMRs) associated with lineage-specific genes were often methylated in the opposing lineage. In HSPCs, these sites tended to show intermediate, complex patterns that resolve to uniformity upon differentiation, by increased or decreased methylation. Promoter HMRs shared across diverse cell types typically display a constitutive core that expands and contracts in a lineage-specific manner to fine-tune the expression of associated genes. Many newly identified intergenic HMRs, both constitutive and lineage specific, were enriched for factor binding sites with an implied role in genome organization and regulation of gene expression, respectively. Overall, our studies represent an important reference data set and provide insights into directional changes in DNA methylation as cells adopt terminal fates.
Short hairpin RNAs (shRNAs) are versatile tools for analyzing loss-of-function phenotypes in vitro and in vivo1. However, their use for studying genes involved in proliferation and survival, which are potential therapeutic targets in cancer and other diseases, is confounded by the strong selective advantage of cells in which shRNA expression is inefficient. We therefore developed a toolkit that combines Tet-regulated miR30-shRNA technology, robust transactivator expression and two fluorescent reporters to track and isolate cells with potent target knockdown. We demonstrated that this system improves the study of essential genes and was sufficiently robust to eradicate aggressive cancer in mice by suppressing a single gene. Further, we applied this system for in vivo negative-selection screening with pooled shRNAs and propose a streamlined, inexpensive workflow that will facilitate the use of RNA interference (RNAi) for the identification and evaluation of essential therapeutic targets.
RNA interference is a powerful tool for studying gene function, however, the reproducible generation of RNAi transgenic mice remains a significant limitation. By combining optimized fluorescence-coupled miR30-based shRNAs with high efficiency ES cell targeting, we developed a fast, scalable pipeline for the production of shRNA transgenic mice. Using this system, we generated eight tet-regulated shRNA transgenic lines targeting Firefly and Renilla luciferases, Oct4 and tumor suppressors p53, p16INK4a, p19ARF and APC and demonstrate potent gene silencing and GFP-tracked knockdown in a broad range of tissues in vivo. Further, using an shRNA targeting APC, we illustrate how this approach can identify predicted phenotypes and also unknown functions for a well-studied gene. In addition, through regulated gene silencing we validate APC/Wnt and p19ARF as potential therapeutic targets in T cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia/lymphoma and lung adenocarcinoma, respectively. This system provides a cost-effective and scalable platform for the production of RNAi transgenic mice targeting any mammalian gene.
During germ cell and preimplantation development, mammalian cells undergo nearly complete reprogramming of DNA methylation patterns. We profiled the methylomes of human and chimp sperm as a basis for comparison to methylation patterns of ES cells. While the majority of promoters escape methylation in both ES cells and sperm, the corresponding hypomethylated regions show substantial structural differences. Repeat elements are heavily methylated in both germ and somatic cells; however, retrotransposons from several subfamilies evade methylation more effectively during male germ cell development, while other subfamilies show the opposite trend. Comparing methylomes of human and chimp sperm revealed a subset of differentially methylated promoters and strikingly divergent methylation in retrotransposon subfamilies, with an evolutionary impact that is apparent in the underlying genomic sequence. Thus, the features that determine DNA methylation patterns differ between male germ cells and somatic cells, and elements of these features have diverged between humans and chimpanzees.
Protecting the genome from transposable element (TE) mobilization is critical for germline development. In Drosophila, Piwi proteins and their bound small RNAs (piRNAs) provide a potent defense against TE activity. TE targeting piRNAs are processed from TE-dense heterochromatic loci termed ‘piRNA clusters’. While piRNA biogenesis from cluster precursors is beginning to be understood, little is known about piRNA cluster transcriptional regulation. Here we show that deposition of histone 3 lysine 9 by the methyltransferase dSETDB1 (egg) is required for piRNA cluster transcription. In the absence of dSETDB1, cluster precursor transcription collapses in germline and somatic gonadal cells and TEs are activated, resulting in germline loss and a block in germline stem cell differentiation. We propose that heterochromatin protects the germline by activating the piRNA pathway.
Short hairpin RNAs (shRNAs) provide powerful experimental tools by enabling stable and regulated gene silencing through programming of endogenous microRNA pathways. Since requirements for efficient shRNA biogenesis and target suppression are largely unknown, many predicted shRNAs fail to efficiently suppress their target. To overcome this barrier, we developed a “Sensor assay” that enables the biological identification of effective shRNAs at large scale. By constructing and evaluating 20,000 RNAi reporters covering every possible target site in 9 mammalian transcripts, we show that our assay reliably identifies potent shRNAs that are surprisingly rare and predominantly missed by existing algorithms. Our unbiased analyses reveal that potent shRNAs share various predicted and previously unknown features associated with specific microRNA processing steps, and suggest a new model for competitive strand selection. Together, our study establishes a powerful tool for large-scale identification of highly potent shRNAs and provides new insights into sequence requirements of effective RNAi.
In Drosophila, Piwi proteins associate with Piwi-interacting RNAs (piRNAs) and protect the germline genome by silencing mobile genetic elements. This defense system acts in germline and gonadal somatic tissue to preserve germline development. Genetic control for these silencing pathways varies greatly between tissues of the gonad. Here, we identified Vreteno (Vret), a novel gonad-specific protein essential for germline development. Vret is required for piRNA-based transposon regulation in both germline and somatic gonadal tissues. We show that Vret, which contains Tudor domains, associates physically with Piwi and Aubergine (Aub), stabilizing these proteins via a gonad-specific mechanism that is absent in other fly tissues. In the absence of vret, Piwi-bound piRNAs are lost without changes in piRNA precursor transcript production, supporting a role for Vret in primary piRNA biogenesis. In the germline, piRNAs can engage in an Aub- and Argonaute 3 (AGO3)-dependent amplification in the absence of Vret, suggesting that Vret function can distinguish between primary piRNAs loaded into Piwi-Aub complexes and piRNAs engaged in the amplification cycle. We propose that Vret plays an essential role in transposon regulation at an early stage of primary piRNA processing.
Germline stem cell; Soma; Transposon; Piwi; Aubergine; piRNAs; Tudor; Drosophila
While whole genome resequencing remains expensive, genomic partitioning provides an affordable means of targeting sequence efforts towards regions of high interest. There are several competitive methods for targeted capture; these include molecular inversion probes, microdroplet-segregated multiplex PCR, and on-array or in-solution capture-by-hybridization. Enrichment of the human exome by array hybridization has been successfully applied to pinpoint the causative allele of Mendelian disorders. This protocol focuses on the application of Agilent 1M arrays for capture-by-hybridization and sequencing on the Illumina platform, though the library preparation method may be adaptable to other vendor’s array platforms and sequencing technologies.
Resequencing; exome; hybridization; targeted enrichment