Monthly Archives: December 2012

The Transposon/piRNA/Chromatin Nexus

Close observation of chromatin states at piRNA-silenced genomic loci demonstrates the power of transposons to change native gene expression.

As reviewed in an earlier post, the Drosophila Piwi/piRNA transposon silencing pathway can be divided into two facets; a complex pathway operating in the germline centred on the Piwi-family argonautes Aubergine and AGO3 localised in peri-nuclear nuage, and a linear pathway operational in the somatic follicle cells. In this linear pathway, piRNAs derived from uni-directional piRNA clusters such as flamenco target Piwi to mediate silencing of a limited subset of retrotransposons. Unlike Aub and AGO3, Piwi is localised to the nucleus, leading to speculation that rather than silencing transposons post-transcriptionally by ‘slicing’ their transcripts, it may act at the transcriptional level. There are many precedents in other organisms for argonautes mediating transcriptional silencing via interactions with chromatin modification and DNA methylation pathways. However, whether one of these silencing modes is employed by Drosophila Piwi was unresolved. A new paper from the lab of Julius Brennecke, generally analysing the linear piRNA pathway active in a cell line derived from the somatic follicle cells surrounding the oocyte (OSC cells) includes important findings for a number of aspects of Piwi-mediated transposon silencing leading to insights on the wider genomic ecology of transposon insertions.

In the first section of the paper, Sienski et al. demonstrate that Maelstrom (Mael), a protein containing putative RNA and DNA binding domains, expressed in both cytoplasm and nuclei and previously implicated in a number of Piwi-pathway effects, acts downstream of Piwi to effect TE silencing. Silencing requires the nuclear localisation of both Piwi and Mael. Further, mutation of the residues necessary for ‘slicer’ activity in Piwi did not de-repress TEs, suggesting a different mechanism for Piwi-mediated silencing.

Sienski et al. go on to marshal three different high-throughput techniques to show that Piwi mediates gene silencing at the transcriptional level. Knocking down (KD) the expression of Piwi pathway factors (piwi, mael) in OSC cells they determined the set of repressed transposable elements (TEs) by comparing RNA levels (RNA-seq). Changes in the steady-state RNA levels were highly correlated with transcription rate as monitored by RNA polymerase II occupancy (ChIP-seq) and levels of nascent RNAs (GRO-seq). Judging by how closely correlated derepression of TEs was to transcription rate, it seems unlikely that the linear piRNA pathway active in follicle cells acts post-transcriptionally at all.

Reasoning that Piwi-mediated transcriptional gene silencing may involve chromatin modification, Sienski et al. profiled the distribution of the repressive histone mark H3K9me3 in OSCs after piwi or mael knockdown. H3K9me3 levels at transposable elements known to be repressed by the piRNA pathway were significantly reduced in the absence of Piwi (and to a lesser extent Mael). This data was from across the genome irrespective of whether the TE was inserted into heterochromatic or euchromatic regions. To negate general effects associated with heterochromatin, the authors looked more closely at TE insertions within euchromatic regions.

Approximate sketch of the patterns of RNA pol II occupancy (ie Transcription), and H3K9me3 at the mdg1 locus after piwi or mael knockdown and normally in control.

Approximate sketch of the patterns of RNA pol II occupancy (ie Transcription), and H3K9me3 at the mdg1 locus after piwi or mael knockdown and normally in control.

At a specific euchromatic insertion of the retrotransposon mdg1, they observed that upon either piwi KD or mael KD, transcription downstream of the insertion strongly increased. However, although this transcriptional bleeding into the surrounding area was similar upon TE derepression due to either piwi KD or mael KD, the pattern of H3K9me3 was very different. Normally this mdg1 insertion displays H3K9me3 in the surrounding 12kb, peaking at the insertion site. This was strongly reduced in piwi KD cells, but in mael KD, H3K9me3 was moderately reduced at the insertion site but had actually spread further downstream (see figure). Similar patterns were observed at nearly all euchromatic mdg1 insertions, as well as other TEs known to be targeted by the linear piRNA pathway active in OSC cells.

Strikingly, most euchromatic H3K9me3 peaks were sensitive to piwi knockdown, whilst 88% of H3K9me3 peaks were found within 5Kb of TE insertions. Piwi-mediated transposon silencing therefore seems to be the main trigger for H3K9 trimethylation in euchromatin.

This transposon silencing mechanism appears to have a major impact on native genes upon TE insertion in their vicinity. An insertion of the retrotransposon gypsy into the first intron of the expanded (ex) gene serves as paradigm for these effects. In OSC cells, the gypsy insertion triggered H3K9me3 spreading into the surrounding 10-12Kb. In control cells RNA polymerase II occupancy was observable at the ex transcription start site (TSS) but weak. Upon piwi or mael knockdown, transcription from the ex TSS was massively increased. As in the earlier mdg1 example, H3K9me3 levels were greatly reduced upon piwi KD but not in mael KD cells. Sienski et al. observed similar effects on the transcription of 28 more genes with nearby TE insertions in OSC cells.

This data has a number of ramifications speaking of a complex interplay between transcription, the establishment and maintenance of repressive chromatin states and the Piwi pathway. Firstly, H3K9me3 considered a transcriptionally repressive histone mark is compatible with transcription. In fact, based on it’s pattern in mael KD cells, the authors propose that downstream transcriptional bleeding leads to the spread of H3K9me3. Further, although H3K9me3 has an integral role in Piwi-mediated silencing, it is not the final silencing mark. H3K9 trimethylation is downstream of Piwi action, but is either upstream or acts in parallel to Mael, which mediates an unknown silencing step crucial to Piwi transcriptional gene silencing.

Importantly, this paper has demonstrated the impact that TE insertion and subsequent piRNA pathway transcriptional repression can have on native gene expression. There are two different modes in which the inactivation of Piwi-mediated TE silencing can lead to the transcriptional activation of these loci. Firstly, the spreading of repressive chromatin marks at transposons can suppress RNA polymerase II access to the genes promoter. Alleviation of TE repression hence leads to (re-)activation of gene expression. Conversely, as TEs (especially the long terminal repeats of some retrotransposons) can serve as promoters, the loss of their repressed chromatin state upon piRNA pathway loss, can activate transcription of downstream regions. Although both these modes lead to transcriptional activation after Piwi pathway loss, they demonstrate that transposon insertion can either activate or repress transcription within relatively extensive genomic surroundings. This underscores the scope for transposons to act as regulatory elements, or to produce new chimerical transcripts and hence potential new genes.

These experiments were mainly performed in one cell type that only partially reflects the activity of what is already a subset of piwi/piRNA action during Drosophila oogenesis.  Piwi and Mael are also active in the nurse cells and oocyte, and this paper suggests that they have similar roles within the context of the expanded piRNA pathways active in the germline. It will be interesting to integrate this nuclear-localised transcriptional-silencing aspect of piRNA silencing into the context of ping-pong amplification and bi-directional piRNA cluster transcripts. Further, do these Piwi-mediated chromatin effects in the germline impact on the transcriptional status of TEs and genes later in somatic development? And if not, do other systems have equivalent activity?

This paper underlines again the importance of the arms race between mobile genetic elements and genomic immune systems such as the piRNA pathway on the wider genomic regulatory context. This contest is being observed to have shaped so many aspects of genome organisation throughout evolution that it sometimes becomes hard to differentiate parasitism from regulation. It is clear however, that to understand the evolutionary impact of mobile elements we must also understand the import of the various epigenetic mechanisms controlling their spread. The minutiae of these mechanisms with regard to their targets, plasticity, adaptability, heritability – often different from organism to organism – has major evolutionary significance. Evolution works differently depending on these mechanisms.

Sienski, G., Dönertas, D., & Brennecke, J. (2012). Transcriptional Silencing of Transposons by Piwi and Maelstrom and Its Impact on Chromatin State and Gene Expression Cell, 151 (5), 964-980 DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2012.10.040

Breaking Neuronal Symmetry by Chromatin Memories

The asymmetric fates of two bilaterally symmetrical neurons are determined by a two-step activation program at a miRNA locus. Very low levels of transcription ‘prime’ the locus many cell generations before the final fate determination is imposed by a bilateral ‘boost’.

Animal nervous systems are generally bilaterally symmetrical anatomically, whilst displaying many functionally important left-right asymmetries. How is asymmetry imposed on a bilaterally symmetrical ground plan? The nematode C. elegans with its invariant cell lineage and tractable genetics offers a powerful model system in which to tackle this issue. Cochella and Hobert have published an elegant new paper describing how a distinct chromatin state at a microRNA locus serves as a molecular mark encoding a memory of a cell’s ancestry in an asymmetric lineage.  After many cell generations, this mark engenders a different response to terminal differentiation from its’ bilaterally symmetric partner cell.

The bilaterally symmetrical pair of gustatory neurons ASEL(eft) and ASER(ight) express different repertoires of chemoreceptors. This functional asymmetry is underpinned by the differential expression of two transcription factors. DIE-1 is expressed in ASEL and COG-1 in ASER. Together with a microRNA, lsy-6, which represses COG-1 expression, they form a bistable feedback loop responsible for determining the asymmetric fates of ASE neurons. Loss of any of these three factors results in conversion of one ASE to the other. However, the asymmetric expression of die-1 and cog-1 only occurs within the post-mitotic neurons themselves. How then is this asymmetry established?

A schematic representation of the features of asymmetric ASE specification. Note the original asymmetry in the lineages is determined at the 4 cell stage, tbx-37/38 expression in the great-granddaughters of ABa, and lsy-6 in the loop in ASEL.

A schematic representation of the features of asymmetric ASE specification. Note the original asymmetry in the lineages is determined at the 4 cell stage, tbx-37/38 expression in the great-granddaughters of ABa, and lsy-6 in the loop in ASEL.

The two ASEs are derived from different cell lineages that diverge at the 4-cell stage. The two daughters of the 2-cell stage blastomere AB, ABa and ABp, differentiate from each other due to signalling from one of the other 4-cell stage blastomeres to ABp. This signalling event represses the expression in the ABp lineage of a pair of redundant transcription factors, TBX-37 and TBX-38, which are transiently expressed in the 8 great-granddaughter cells derived from ABa. The expression of these TBX proteins is crucial to the asymmetric fate specification of ASE neurons as in tbx-37/38 double mutants ASEL is converted into ASER. However, TBX-37 and 38 are only expressed in the lineage giving rise to ASEL six cell generations before it’s birth. This large gap between the different stages of asymmetric ASE determination lead researchers to postulate the existence of a ‘memory mark’ linking TBX-37/38 action to the expression of the asymmetry defining feedback loop.

During this hiatus between TBX-37/38 expression and terminal ASE determination, the lineages giving rise to the two neurons become symmetric. A number of left/right pairs of neuronal precursors expressing the proneural gene hlh-14 develop from the two lineages, but only the pair of ASE mother cells express the ‘terminal selector’ transcription factor CHE-1. CHE-1 drives the expression of many ASE-expressed genes and activates expression of the asymmetric loop components, lsy-6, die-1, and cog-1. It is at this point that the TBX-37/38-dependent memory mark must integrate into the bilateral activity of CHE-1 generating the asymmetric expression of the loop components.

To try to discover the nature of the memory mark Cochella and Hobert performed a detailed analysis of the expression of the loop components. lsy-6 was suggested to act upstream of die-1 and cog-1 by genetic experiments, and the researchers found that it was the first of the loop components to be expressed.  It is expressed asymmetrically from the start in the ASEL mother cell. Deletion of lsy-6 results in conversion of ASEL to ASER. A construct of lsy-6 in combination with 932 bp of upstream sequence is able to rescue this effect, but sometimes leads to the conversion of ASER to ASEL. This suggested that the ‘upstream element’ construct drove ectopic expression in ASER as well as ASEL. Indeed, the upstream element contains CHE-1 binding motifs causing expression in both the ASE neurons. Cochella and Hobert therefore assayed other lsy-6 surrounding sequence for cis-regulatory information limiting its expression to ASEL. In fact, a construct including the upstream element, lsy-6, and 300 bp of downstream sequence completely rescued lsy-6 null alleles, eliminated ectopic ASER conversion, and was expressed identically to the endogenous miRNA. Normal lsy-6 expression is therefore regulated by both the upstream and downstream elements.

When the downstream element was used alone to drive expression of a reporter gene, it produced a very different pattern. Expression started early in a few ABa-derived blastomeres, one cell division after the expression of tbx-37/38, continuing in the progenitive lineage of ASEL until its’ birth.It never drove expression in ABp derived lineages. Expression from the downstream element was completely lost in tbx-37/38 double mutants, whilst mis-expression of TBX-37/38 in ABp derived cells lead to ectopic expression of the downstream element reporter. The downstream element contains a predicted binding-site for T-box proteins, directly linking the lineage–dependent expression of tbx-37/38 with theasymmetry-defining loop.

The expression pattern driven by the downstream reporter suggested that lsy-6 may be expressed far earlier than previously observed. The researchers therefore used a very sensitive technique to image potential lsy-6 transcripts. This showed that a few lsy-6 RNAs were present in cells in the lineage giving rise to ASEL five generations before strong expression is observed in the ASEL mother cell.

Broadly therefore, lsy-6 expression occurs in two phases; a very low level of activation early, dependent on the downstream element, and a second upstream element-dependent higher level of expression in the ASEL mother cell. However, deletion of the downstream element within large genomic constructs abrogated expression at all stages, and failed to rescue lsy-6 null alleles. This contrasted with earlier observations in which the upstream element alone could drive expression and rescue. The difference between these observations suggested  that, within a normal genomic context, the upstream element can only function in combination with the downstream element.

The authors therefore posited a model in which early downstream element/tbx-37/38– dependent transcription may ‘prime’ the locus in some way, rendering it competent to respond to the later transcriptional ‘boost’ mediated by CHE-1 acting on the upstream element.

Cochella and Hobert tested their model by substituting priming via tbx-37/38/downstream element for priming via ectopic CHE-1. In worms with the downstream element deleted, they drove early expression of CHE-1 from a heat-shock promoter approximately 4 cell generations before its’ normal time of expression. This caused low levels of lsy-6 transcription, rescuing the priming phase and allowing later ASEL expression and determination. Priming is therefore not dependent on a specific transcription factor acting on the downstream element, rather as long as low levels of transcription occur at the locus, it is primed.

This suggested that the memory mark causing the different response of the lsy-6 locus may be a lineage-specific transcription-dependent chromatin state. Using a cunning technique to visualise the level of chromatin compaction on transgenic arrays containing the lsy-6 locus, they observed chromatin decompaction of thelocus in the ASEL progenitive lineage 1 cell division after tbx-37/38 expression. Chromatin decompaction is associated with active genes; in the absence of early transcription the locus becomes compacted and refractory to CHE-1 activation later. In tbx-37/38 double mutants this lineage-specific decompaction was never observed, nor was it seen when the downstream element was deleted.

The memory mark is therefore chromatin decompaction at a miRNA locus linked to very low levels of transcription imposed within a cell lineage at an early stage of development. This primed state relays asymmetric information into an otherwise bilaterally symmetrical developmental program, facilitating diversification of neuronal cell fates. The timing of the priming mechanism fits in with earlier evidence that C. elegans embryos are relatively developmentally plastic until the 64-128 cell stage when developmental genes become compacted and refractory to ectopic activation.

Although I find this paper very elegant and convincing, I do have a few qualms about the most crucial experiment: the early ectopic activation by CHE-1. It seems like a slightly dirty experiment and I think I would’ve preferred to see ectopic induction of lsy-6 transcription via an unrelated mechanism. Perhaps experiments such as these would’ve had their own problems and my doubts are unfounded. I would also have liked to see the compaction assay performed with the ectopic CHE-1 induced activation.

The demonstration of a chromatin-based lineage specific prepattern facilitating differential responses to more generic inputs later in embryogenesis has wide implications, not just for asymmetries in the worm nervous system, but for the way we understand development in many animals. Firstly a technical point; to visualise early lsy-6 transcription the authors had to use a very labour intensive and hi-tech form of in situ hybridisation. The transcription they found, of just a few individual RNA molecules per cell, had massive developmental significance. Generally the techniques used to judge expression in developmental studies is nowhere near as sensitive, implying that we may be missing a lot of important information. Secondly, a more general point; A cell or tissues’ ‘competence’ to respond to developmental signalling, a concept derived from experimental embryology, and perhaps disdained in more genetical perspectives is relevant here. Molecular memories encoded by chromatin states may be a very widespread mode for imposing pre-pattern or developmental competence during embryogenesis. It seems to me that these types of understandings can begin to blend together the two different meanings of epigenetics; namely the derivation of the word by Waddington from epigenesis (meaning the increase in complexity during development), with the more current usage of epigenetics as describing a diverse collection of non-genetic inherited information.

Cochella, L., & Hobert, O. (2012). Embryonic Priming of a miRNA Locus Predetermines Postmitotic Neuronal Left/Right Asymmetry in C. elegans Cell, 151 (6), 1229-1242 DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2012.10.049