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.
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.