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1.  A Conserved Upstream Motif Orchestrates Autonomous, Germline-Enriched Expression of Caenorhabditis elegans piRNAs 
PLoS Genetics  2013;9(3):e1003392.
Piwi-interacting RNAs (piRNAs) fulfill a critical, conserved role in defending the genome against foreign genetic elements. In many organisms, piRNAs appear to be derived from processing of a long, polycistronic RNA precursor. Here, we establish that each Caenorhabditis elegans piRNA represents a tiny, autonomous transcriptional unit. Remarkably, the minimal C. elegans piRNA cassette requires only a 21 nucleotide (nt) piRNA sequence and an ∼50 nt upstream motif with limited genomic context for expression. Combining computational analyses with a novel, in vivo transgenic system, we demonstrate that this upstream motif is necessary for independent expression of a germline-enriched, Piwi-dependent piRNA. We further show that a single nucleotide position within this motif directs differential germline enrichment. Accordingly, over 70% of C. elegans piRNAs are selectively expressed in male or female germline, and comparison of the genes they target suggests that these two populations have evolved independently. Together, our results indicate that C. elegans piRNA upstream motifs act as independent promoters to specify which sequences are expressed as piRNAs, how abundantly they are expressed, and in what germline. As the genome encodes well over 15,000 unique piRNA sequences, our study reveals that the number of transcriptional units encoding piRNAs rivals the number of mRNA coding genes in the C. elegans genome.
Author Summary
Across the animal kingdom, Piwi-interacting small RNAs (piRNAs) protect genome integrity and promote fertility. While the functions of piRNAs are well-characterized, far less is known about how they are generated and how their expression is regulated. In the Caenorhabditis elegans genome, a conserved sequence motif lies upstream of many piRNA loci and appears to regulate their expression. We combined computational and experimental approaches to investigate the role of this motif in the expression of C. elegans piRNAs. We discovered that >70% of piRNAs are differentially enriched in male versus female germline, and these male and female piRNAs show different upstream motifs. Using a transgenic system for expressing synthetic piRNAs in vivo, we demonstrate that variation of a single nucleotide within this motif influences piRNA germline enrichment. We further show that the conserved motif is capable of driving piRNA expression in genomic isolation. Accordingly, the genomic distribution of these motifs determines which sequences are expressed as piRNAs in C. elegans. Our results suggest that each C. elegans piRNA represents an independent transcript whose sequence, abundance, and germline enrichment are encoded by a variant upstream motif, defining a novel modality for expression of piRNAs.
PMCID: PMC3597512  PMID: 23516384
2.  The Caenorhabditis elegans HEN1 Ortholog, HENN-1, Methylates and Stabilizes Select Subclasses of Germline Small RNAs 
PLoS Genetics  2012;8(4):e1002617.
Small RNAs regulate diverse biological processes by directing effector proteins called Argonautes to silence complementary mRNAs. Maturation of some classes of small RNAs involves terminal 2′-O-methylation to prevent degradation. This modification is catalyzed by members of the conserved HEN1 RNA methyltransferase family. In animals, Piwi-interacting RNAs (piRNAs) and some endogenous and exogenous small interfering RNAs (siRNAs) are methylated, whereas microRNAs are not. However, the mechanisms that determine animal HEN1 substrate specificity have yet to be fully resolved. In Caenorhabditis elegans, a HEN1 ortholog has not been studied, but there is evidence for methylation of piRNAs and some endogenous siRNAs. Here, we report that the worm HEN1 ortholog, HENN-1 (HEN of Nematode), is required for methylation of C. elegans small RNAs. Our results indicate that piRNAs are universally methylated by HENN-1. In contrast, 26G RNAs, a class of primary endogenous siRNAs, are methylated in female germline and embryo, but not in male germline. Intriguingly, the methylation pattern of 26G RNAs correlates with the expression of distinct male and female germline Argonautes. Moreover, loss of the female germline Argonaute results in loss of 26G RNA methylation altogether. These findings support a model wherein methylation status of a metazoan small RNA is dictated by the Argonaute to which it binds. Loss of henn-1 results in phenotypes that reflect destabilization of substrate small RNAs: dysregulation of target mRNAs, impaired fertility, and enhanced somatic RNAi. Additionally, the henn-1 mutant shows a weakened response to RNAi knockdown of germline genes, suggesting that HENN-1 may also function in canonical RNAi. Together, our results indicate a broad role for HENN-1 in both endogenous and exogenous gene silencing pathways and provide further insight into the mechanisms of HEN1 substrate discrimination and the diversity within the Argonaute family.
Author Summary
Small RNAs serve as sentinels of the genome, policing activity of selfish genetic elements, modulating chromatin dynamics, and fine-tuning gene expression. Nowhere is this more important than in the germline, where endogenous small interfering RNAs (endo-siRNAs) and Piwi-interacting RNAs (piRNAs) promote formation of functional gametes and ensure viable, fertile progeny. Small RNAs act primarily by associating with effector proteins called Argonautes to direct repression of complementary mRNAs. HEN1 methyltransferases, which methylate small RNAs, play a critical role in accumulation of these silencing signals. In this study, we report that the 26G RNAs, a class of C. elegans endo-siRNAs, are differentially methylated in male and female germlines. 26G RNAs derived from the two germlines are virtually indistinguishable, except that they associate with evolutionarily divergent Argonautes. Our data support a model wherein the methylation status and, consequently, stability of a small RNA are determined by the associated Argonaute. Therefore, selective expression of Argonautes that permit or prohibit methylation may represent a new mechanism for regulating small RNA turnover. As we observe this phenomenon in the germline, it may be particularly pertinent for directing inheritance of small RNAs, which can carry information not encoded in progeny DNA that is essential for continued transgenerational genome surveillance.
PMCID: PMC3330095  PMID: 22548001
3.  The Landscape of C. elegans 3′UTRs 
Science (New York, N.Y.)  2010;329(5990):432-435.
Three-prime untranslated regions (3′UTRs) of metazoan messenger RNAs (mRNAs) contain numerous regulatory elements, yet remain largely uncharacterized. Using polyA capture, 3′ rapid amplification of complementary DNA (cDNA) ends, full-length cDNAs, and RNA-seq, we defined ∼26,000 distinct 3′UTRs in Caenorhabditis elegans for ∼85% of the 18,328 experimentally supported protein-coding genes and revised ∼40% of gene models. Alternative 3′UTR isoforms are frequent, often differentially expressed during development. Average 3′UTR length decreases with animal age. Surprisingly, no polyadenylation signal (PAS) was detected for 13% of polyadenylation sites, predominantly among shorter alternative isoforms. Trans-spliced (versus non–trans-spliced) mRNAs possess longer 3′UTRs and frequently contain no PAS or variant PAS. We identified conserved 3′UTR motifs, isoform-specific predicted microRNA target sites, and polyadenylation of most histone genes. Our data reveal a rich complexity of 3′UTRs, both genome-wide and throughout development.
PMCID: PMC3142571  PMID: 20522740

Results 1-3 (3)