Epigenetic Licensing of a Sex Determination Gene

A recent series of papers describing interacting small RNA pathways in C. elegans, posited the existence of an anti-silencing pathway responsible for licensing the expression of germline transcripts. Johnson and Spence (Science. 2011) published the first paper suggesting such a pathway. Using an elegant series of genetic experiments, they found that maternally supplied RNA of the sex determination gene fem-1 was necessary for normal zygotic fem-1 activity. In the absence of this maternal component, normal fem-1 alleles are epigenetically silenced.

In C. elegans, sex is determined by the ratio of sex chromosomes to autosomes. Worms with one X chromosome become males, whilst those with two develop as self-fertile hermaphrodites. Mutations in genes in the sex determination pathway can give rise to true females. For instance, fem-1 is required for masculinization in both males and hermaphrodites; worms deficient for both maternal and zygotic fem-1 activity lack all male development.

Johnson and Spence noticed some discrepancies between the relative importance of the maternal and zygotic components of fem-1 action. Homozygous fem-1 mutants, born of heterozygous mothers show partial male development because of maternally supplied fem-1. Zygotically heterozygous progeny of female worms homozygous for point mutations in fem-1 are phenotypically normal; that is to say that despite the lack of any maternally derived active FEM-1 protein, male development can proceed normally. However, similar crosses, in which fem-1 deletion alleles are used rather than point mutations, give rise to heterozygous worms showing feminization of the germ line (Fog phenotypes). To prove the requirement of a maternal fem-1 product for spermatogenesis, Johnson and Spence performed a clever genetic trick that produced worms that were homozygous for the wild-type fem-1 allele but were born of a mother homozygous for the deletion mutation. Most of these worms also exhibited Fog phenotypes. Other strong loss of function alleles that eliminated FEM-1 protein, could complement (ie. rescue) the deletion mutation-caused maternal effect. It therefore appeared that maternally derived fem-1 RNA was required for spermatogenesis, independently of its protein-coding function.

To confirm this, the authors injected in vitro transcribed fem-1 RNA into females homozygous for the fem-1 deletion allele. These worm’s progeny displayed fewer Fog phenotypes than those of uninjected worms. A similar level of rescue was observed when fem-1 RNA without a translation initiation codon was injected, showing that FEM-1 protein was not required.

What was the function of the maternal fem-1 RNA? Johnson and Spence hypothesised that it might be required for normal zygotic fem-1 activity. They therefore assayed this in heterozygotic worms descended either from mothers homozygous for the deletion, or from heterozygotes. Both a genetic test and observation of zygotic fem-1 RNA levels showed that zygotic fem-1 activity in the germline was impaired in the absence of maternal fem-1 RNA.

The authors went on to show that the severity of the Fog phenotypes observed in heterozygotes depended on the history of the wild-type fem-1 allele. Repeatedly backcrossing heterozygotes with homozygotes increased the penetrance of Fog phenotypes in heterozygotes. This showed that although the wild-type allele remains the same genetically, it becomes heritably compromised epigenetically.

To explain these findings, the authors suggest that in the absence of maternal fem-1 RNA, the paternally contributed wild-type allele becomes epigenetically silenced in the zygotic germline. They perspicaciously reasoned that the anti-silencing activity of the maternal RNA may work by inactivating silencing siRNAs, hence licensing zygotic expression. The cluster of recent papers (discussed here) have come to similar conclusions, suggesting the presence of an anti-silencing pathway, possibly mediated by CSR-1 and it’s associated 22G-RNAs.

This epigenetic licensing system effectively marks genes previously expressed in the germline as ‘self’, whilst transcripts without a history of expression are silenced as potentially deleterious. So far the mechanisms of this pathway are yet to be elucidated. As the CSR-1/22G-RNA system targets thousands of genes, one would expect similar phenomena to those observed with fem-1 to be more regularly observed. I’m looking forward to further findings in this field, and potentially analogous systems being discovered in other organisms.

Johnson CL, & Spence AM (2011). Epigenetic licensing of germline gene expression by maternal RNA in C. elegans. Science (New York, N.Y.), 333 (6047), 1311-4 PMID: 21885785

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