Tag Archives: CSR-1

The CSR-1 siRNA pathway gets more enigmatic

A recent paper forces a reappraisal of the role of CSR-1 its associated 22G-RNAs, and demonstrates a positive regulatory role for this RNAi pathway in C. elegans.

As described in a previous post, depletion of the Argonaute protein CSR-1, or the proteins responsible for the biogenesis of the endo-siRNAs with which its complexes (the RdRP EGO-1, and the helicase DRH-3), results in defective mitotic chromosome segregation and sterility. To explain these findings Claycomb et al. proposed that the CSR-1 22G-RNA pathway acted to organise the proper compaction of the holocentric chromosomes of C. elegans, and the assembly of the kinetochores necessary for their proper segregation. (I strongly recommend reading the earlier post describing this paper’s findings).

Claycomb et al. had found that expression of most genes targeted by CSR-1 associated 22G-RNAs was not significantly altered in csr-1 mutants. Avgousti et al. went back over the same data and found that, although this was true in the main, expression of most of the genes encoding histone proteins was downregulated in csr-1 mutants. It had previously been shown that downregulation of just one histone gene could cause chromosome segregation and sterility phenotypes in worms. This lead Avgousti et al. to hypothesise that the defects seen in csr-1, ego-1 and drh-3 mutants may be caused by defective histone production, rather than the model proposed by Claycomb et al.

Histone proteins make up the core of the nucleosome and are multiply encoded in all eukaryotic genomes. Histone mRNAs are processed in a special way; generally their 3’UTRs are not polyadenylated; instead, downstream of a conserved stem-loop structure, a histone specific sequence (HDE) is recognised and cleaved by the U7 snRNA (an important splicing factor). Both HDE sequences and the U7 snRNA are not present in C. elegans. Avgousti et al therefore tested whether this key histone mRNA processing stage was instead being mediated by CSR-1 and its associated endo-siRNAs in worms.

Using a synthetic oligonucleotide identical to the region of the 3’UTR downstream of the stem-loop from the histone 2A pre-mRNA, they demonstrated that CSR-1 directly binds histone mRNAs. This binding was abrogated upon RNAi depletion of the RdRP EGO-1, showing that CSR-1 binding was dependent on the 22G-RNAs generated by EGO-1. Avgousti et al. also demonstrated that upon knockdown of CSR-1 or EGO-1, or in drh-3 mutants, unprocessed histone pre-mRNAs accumulate, whilst processed histone mRNAs and proteins are depleted.

The strongest evidence supporting the hypothesis that defective histone mRNA processing causes the defects seen in csr-1 mutants was a series of transgenic rescue experiments. Histone overexpression from transgenes, designed to not require 3’UTR mRNA cleavage, was able to counteract the effects of csr-1 or ego-1 RNAi knockdown, whereas transgenes that did required 3’UTR processing could not.

It seems likely therefore that in C. elegans the 3’UTR cleavage of histone pre-mRNAs is performed by CSR-1/22G-RNA complexes. CSR-1 has been shown to possess endonuclease ‘slicer’ activity, but although a likely candidate, it is too early to say whether it directly performs the cleavage or recruits other factors to perform the reaction. I think this paper blows a large hole in the model proposed by Claycomb et al. to explain the role of CSR-1 22G-RNAs; suggesting that the observed chromosome segregation defects are indirectly caused by a failure to produce adequate histones, rather than a failure to direct the organisation of mitotic chromosomes. However, the hypothesis certainly requires further and more subtle experiments. The paper also further muddies the waters on the question of just what the CSR-1 22G-RNA system is doing in most cases. The recognition of histone mRNA 3’UTRs can only account for a very small proportion of this endo-siRNA population. As discussed in other posts the CSR-1 22G-RNA system is the prime candidate to be an epigenetic licensing anti-silencing pathway. Do the two different CSR-1 isoforms perform two different functions; one licensing transcription and the other replacing the U7 snRNA splicing apparatus? Is this pre-mRNA splicing role confined to histone mRNAs? An important first of this paper is the demonstration of a positive role in regulating gene expression for an RNAi system. Generally, the various RNAi pathways negatively regulate gene expression; either resulting in slicing and degradation of transcripts, directing silencing chromatin modifications etc. In this case mRNA processing by the CSR-1 endo-siRNA system leads to proper expression of histones at key periods of rapid cell division (eg. early embryogenesis). Personally, I’m looking forward to more contentious interpretations of this pathway from the research groups involved!

Avgousti DC, Palani S, Sherman Y, & Grishok A (2012). CSR-1 RNAi pathway positively regulates histone expression in C. elegans. The EMBO journal PMID: 22863779

Claycomb JM, Batista PJ, Pang KM, Gu W, Vasale JJ, van Wolfswinkel JC, Chaves DA, Shirayama M, Mitani S, Ketting RF, Conte D Jr, & Mello CC (2009). The Argonaute CSR-1 and its 22G-RNA cofactors are required for holocentric chromosome segregation. Cell, 139 (1), 123-34 PMID: 19804758

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

Interacting small RNA pathways in worms 5: Global Genome Surveillance

As discussed previously, in C. elegans more than 15,000 21U-RNAs are expressed from two large clusters on chromosome IV. As very few of these piRNAs exhibit perfect sequence complementarity with other endogenous sequences within in the C. elegans genome, it’s been difficult to deduce the targets and functions of this system. New studies from the labs of Eric Miska and Craig Mello have significantly advanced our understandings of piRNAs in C. elegans. Bagijn et al. and Lee et al. have confirmed a previous supposition that 21U-RNAs can base-pair with imperfectly complementary sequences. This less stringent base-pairing opens up the entire transcriptome to possible piRNA-mediated regulation. Bagijn et al, Ashe et al, and Shirayama et al. have further characterised the effector pathways downstream of PRG-1/piRNA targeting. Together these papers outline a finely tuned genomic surveillance mechanism capable of discerning self and non-self transcripts.

 Targets

Previous studies had shown that 21U-RNAs act upstream of 22G-RNAs to repress the activity of Tc3 transposons. Lee et al. therefore investigated whether the expression of 22G-RNAs was altered in worms mutant for the worm Piwi protein PRG-1. When all 22G-RNAs were considered together, they couldn’t observe a correlation between PRG-1 activity and 22G-RNAs. However, 22G-RNAs can be divided into four different pathways defined by the different AGOs with which they complex. When those associated with 2 different ‘Eri’ pathways, and the CSR-1 22G-RNAs were discounted, Lee et al. observed that WAGO-associated 22G-RNAs tended to be depleted in prg-1 mutants. mRNAs targeted by WAGO 22G-RNAs showed a tendency towards upregulation in prg-1 mutants, consistent with a repressive role for these small RNAs.

22G-RNAs are not evenly distributed on their target mRNAs. Instead, hotspots occur where 22G-RNA species are far more common than at other points on the same mRNA. Lee et al. postulated that these hotspots could be regions where PRG-1/21U-RNA complexes recruit RNA-dependent RNA polymerases to generate 22G-RNAs. If this is as widespread a phenomenon as suggested by the depletion of 22G-RNAs in prg-1 mutants, imperfect base-pairing of 21U-RNAs to their targets must be occurring, as only 29 WAGO targets show perfect complementarity to 21U-RNAs. Lee et al. therefore asked whether 22G-RNAs are enriched in mRNA coding regions with the potential for energetically favourable but imperfect base pairing to 21U-RNAs. Basing their parameters on the imperfect base-pairing observed for miRNA target interactions (in which strong base-pairing in a ‘seed’ region of nucleotides 2-8, facilitates less perfect pairing between the rest of the sequences), Lee et al. determined the level of 22G-RNAs within a 100nt window around potential 21U-RNA binding sites in wild-type and prg-1 mutant worms.  Allowing 2 mismatches and 1 G:U wobble pair outside the seed region, and at most 1 G:U pair within the seed (parameters that meant that more than 50% of genes contained potential 21U-RNA binding sites), the researchers found that 22G-RNAs mapping to within ± 50nt of the 21U-RNA binding sites on WAGO mRNA targets, were 3 fold enriched in wildtype worms relative to the prg-1 mutants. A smaller enrichment of 1.4 fold was also observed for CSR-1 mRNA targets. The level of 22G-RNA enrichment correlated with the expression levels of 21U-RNAs. Lee et al. confirmed the importance of pairing within the seed region by comparing this data with another set of potential 21U-RNA targets with similar total mismatches but poor seed pairing, which showed little 22G-RNA enrichment.

Bagijn et al performed slightly different analyses, which came to similar conclusions. They identified 681,746 potential binding sites for 16,003 21U-RNAs if 3 mismatches are allowed (not biased away from seed region). They then looked to see what proportions of these sites 22G-RNAs also mapped to, finding 1.6, 1.4, 1.5 and 1.2 fold 22G-RNA enrichments relative to matched control sequences, at 0, 1, 2 and 3 mismatch sites respectively. As with Lee et al. the levels of 22G-RNAs correlated with 21U-RNA abundance.

These analyses suggest that 21U-RNAs are targeting a large proportion of the germline transcriptome, including both protein-coding genes and transposons. In relation to the repression of Tc3 (discussed in the previous post), Bagijn et al. identified three piRNAs with imperfect complementarity to sequences in the TIRs, perhaps clearing up some of the ambiguities from previous studies. By using their data on 22G-RNA enrichments at potential 21U-RNA binding sites, they were able to rank the likelihood of piRNA regulation for transcripts. Six of eleven candidates that showed strong reductions in 22G-RNAs in prg-1 mutants also showed statistically significant transcriptional upregulation (including both transposons and protein-coding genes).

piRNA sensors

Most of the papers under discussion used transgenic ‘sensor’ lines to dissect the mechanisms of PRG-1/21U-RNA mediated silencing. Bagijn et al generated a ‘piRNA sensor’ in which a GFP – histone H2B fusion gene with a sequence complementary to a known 21U-RNA is inserted into the C. elegans genome. In the control sensor line (in which the reverse complement of the 21U-RNA is included instead), the GFP reporter protein is expressed in germline nuclei. In the piRNA sensor line the transgene is silenced. This silencing is dependent on PRG-1, as the sensor was desilenced in prg-1 mutants. Bagijn et al detected 22G-RNAs mapping to the piRNA sensor mRNA close to the piRNA target site, that weren’t present in the control sensor or in prg-1 mutants. As levels of both the piRNA sensor pre-mRNA and mRNA were raised in prg-1 mutants, it appears that silencing occurs at the level of transcription, and possibly post-transcriptionally as well.

By crossing the piRNA sensor line into various mutant worm strains, Bagijn et al showed that the silencing involved many of the 22G-RNA pathway components discussed previously, including the helicase DRH-3, the RdRPs EGO-1 and RRF-1, and various WAGOs. As has been discussed previously, many of the WAGO proteins have overlapping functions and hence display partial redundancy when impaired. However, wago-9 (also known as hrde-1) appears to be an especially important AGO in the silencing process; the sole single WAGO mutant to cause desilencing phenotypes. All these 22G-RNA components act downstream of PRG-1, as 21U-RNAs are still present in these mutants while 22G-RNAs fail to accumulate. In prg-1 mutants both classes of small RNAs are affected.

Although in other animals Piwi proteins are known to act by slicing it’s targets, transgenes encoding PRG-1 with a mutated endonuclease motif could rescue the desilencing observed in prg-1 mutants. By mutating the piRNA target sequence in the sensor, Bagijn et al. then showed that 2 mismatches are tolerated for piRNA mediated silencing to occur. The residues changed could be anywhere in the sequence including at positions 10 and 11 – the normal site for Piwi slicing activity.

Lee et al. undertook very similar experiments to Bagijn et al, generating a piRNA sensor line and confirming that mismatches with the piRNA target site were tolerated, including at the normal slicing site. However there is a crucial difference between the two sets of experiments using piRNA sensors. In Bagijn et al’s study, PRG-1 was required continuously for silencing to be maintained through the generations. That is to say that an already silenced sensor would be desilenced when crossed into a prg-1 mutant line. Lee et al’s piRNA sensor only required PRG-1 for silencing to be initiated, but not for it to be maintained. When Lee et al’s silenced sensor was outcrossed into prg-1 mutants, GFP expression was not activated, whereas if the transgene was introduced into prg-1 mutants it was not silenced. This important disparity may well be caused by differences in the (broadly similar) compositions of the sensor transgenes, and will be discussed later.

Long-term heritability.

The PRG-1-dependent silencing of the piRNA sensors is incredibly long lived, being transmissable through many generations. This type of epigenetically heritable effect has been previously observed with various RNAi paradigms in C. elegans, with disagreement over whether epigenetic transmission is primarily through inheritance of small RNAs, or via chromatin modifications, or both (see these earlier posts: 1, 2 ). Ashe et al. generated another transgenic sensor line to monitor the heritability of dsRNA-induced RNAi. They found that both the piRNA-mediated silencing pathway and the heritable RNAi silencing pathway converge on a common group of nuclear factors responsible for 22G-RNA mediated silencing. These include two proteins of unknown function, NRDE-1 and NRDE-2, known to mediate nuclear RNAi via interactions with nascent transcripts; the heterochromatin protein 1 orthologue, HPL-2; the nuclear AGO WAGO-9; and a SET-domain protein, SET-25, thought to be a methyltransferase responsible for histone H3 lysine-9 trimethylation (a repressive chromatin modification). This collection of downstream effectors suggests that the heritability of both RNAi and piRNA mediated silencing rests on epigenetically stable chromatin marks.

However, if a silenced piRNA sensor strain is crossed with a strain expressing a independent GFP transgene, a dominant silencing of both transgenes occurs. This trans­-acting silencing effect is most likely mediated by secondary siRNAs (ie 22G-RNAs). When small RNA populations are assayed after the induction of RNAi silencing, a large diversity of small RNAs with little 5’ bias (ie Dicer products) were found to target the sensor. However, by the 4th generation, targeting small RNAs had clarified themselves into antisense 22G-RNAs. These 22G-RNAs appeared to be generated de novo in each generation. It therefore appears likely that epigenetic silencing is achieved by the inheritance of both small RNAs and chromatin marks, is reaffirmed in each generation, and acts at both transcriptional and post-transcriptional levels.

RNAe 

In the previously discussed papers, transgenes that were engineered to contain 21U-RNA binding sites were actively silenced in C. elegans. Shirayama et al. describe how transgenes containing non-endogenous genes can be silenced even in the absence of perfect piRNA recognition sequences. They found that when transgene fusions of gfp  and endogenous genes were inserted into the genome, they were occasionally completely silenced, whilst sometimes exactly the same construct, inserted into the same genomic site, was expressed. When a silent line was crossed to an expressing line, the transgene was invariably silenced in 100% of progeny. This dominant trans-acting silencing was heritable through many generations.  Shirayama et al termed this phenomenon RNA-induced epigenetic silencing (RNAe)(rather forestalling there own explanation of it’s causes).

By analysing levels of pre-mRNAs and mRNAs in silenced and active lines, Shirayama et al. found that silencing occurs at both the transcriptional and post-transcriptional levels. Silenced alleles were activated when crossed into lines mutant for various factors involved in repressive chromatin formation (the polycomb group proteins MES-3 + 4, and heterochromatin protein HPL-2). Whilst ChIP experiments demonstrated that silenced transgenes were enriched for histone H3K9 trimethylation. Hence RNAe involves transcriptional silencing at the level of chromatin formation.

The trans- acting nature of RNAe suggested a small RNA component. Crossing silenced alleles into lines mutant for factors known to function in the WAGO 22G-RNA pathway (rde-3,+mut-7) resulted in desilencing. Similarly transgenes were desilenced in worms mutant for the nuclear AGO encoding wago-9; effects which could be enhanced by mutations in additional wago genes. Sequencing of small RNAs from silenced worm gonads revealed a strong accumulation of 22G-RNAs targeted against gfp. The gfp genes were always combined with endogenous genes in the transgene constructs. Interestingly, 22G-RNAs were not produced against this part of the transgene, suggesting a mechanism protecting against the silencing of endogenous genes.

When a silenced transgene is crossed into prg-1 mutants it does not become reactivated, however when Shirayama et al performed transgenesis directly into prg-1 mutants silencing failed to occur. This demonstrates that PRG-1 is required for the initiation of RNAe and not for it’s maintenance (in agreement with the findings of Ashe et al and Lee et al). Although Shirayama et al did not find the exact piRNA recognition sites triggering this silencing, they did apparently identify a number of candidate piRNAs, the recognition sites of which displayed heightened expression of 22G-RNAs. It seems therefore that the recognition of foreign nucleic acids and their suppression via RNAe is the primary function of the PRG-1/21U-RNA system.

Discussion 

All of these studies are in general agreement about the basic dynamics of piRNA silencing in C. elegans. piRNA target recognition is mismatch tolerant. PRG-1 does not act by endonuclease activity. Instead, upon recognition it recruits a RdRP complex to generate 22G-RNAs against sequence adjacent to the 21U-RNA binding site. These 22G-RNAs complex with WAGOs (especially WAGO-1 and WAGO-9) that effect genetic silencing at both the level of repressive chromatin and post-transcriptionally. PRG-1/21U-RNA recognition triggers a self-sustaining WAGO-22G-RNA dependent silencing.

However, there is still a question about the targets of this system. With a few mismatches tolerated the known repertoire of 21U-RNAs can target the whole genome. Obviously, it’s not all repressed, so just what is happening? The computational analyses of Bagijn et al suggested that protein-coding mRNA sequences showed signs of bias against potential piRNA recognition sequences, whilst transposon and pseudogene sequences did not.  They also found evidence to suggest that transposon insertions between the conserved 21U-RNA promoter motif and the 21U-RNA gene itself generate new transposon-targeting piRNAs. These findings lead to a model of C. elegans piRNA biology with similarities to that observed in Drosophila; piRNA clusters rich in transposon sequence, generating piRNAs primarily used to repress transposon mobilisation in the germline, with endogenous genes being selected to avoid piRNA mediated repression. Lee et al. did find similar trends but were not convinced that the numbers were strong enough, instead emphasising that many of the findings in these experiments suggest the existence of an anti-silencing pathway.

 Anti-Silencing

When Shirayama et al. used dsRNA to silence gfp containing transgenes that hadn’t been silenced by RNAe, they were surprised to find the silencing induced was inherited very stably, whereas RNAi against gfp transgenic lines that had been produced by earlier methods never silenced as heritably. They then crossed these earlier transgenic lines to silenced gfp lines to test whether they were susceptible to trans-silencing. Instead they found that these lines would dominantly activate gfp expression. This suggests the presence of a dominant trans-acting mechanism competing against the trans-acting silencing mechanism.

Another line of evidence suggesting the existence of an anti-silencing pathway is the difference in the requirement for prg-1 for silencing between the piRNA sensors of Bagijn et al and Lee et al.  In the Bagijn et al sensor the 21U-RNA target site was flanked by endogenous sequences that are known targets of CSR-1 22G-RNAs. In contrast, in Lee et al’s sensor the piRNA recognition site was surrounded by sequences not targeted by this small RNA population.

A likely explanation for why the silencing of the Bagijn et al sensor required prg-1 in each generation, was that a CSR-1 based anti-silencing pathway counteracts the silencing induced by PRG-1 triggered WAGO mediated silencing. Likewise, CSR-1 22G-RNAs could be the trans-acting anti-silencing agents suggested in Shirayama et al’s experiments. Shirayama et al’s fusion transgenes were more or less susceptible to silencing depending on the endogenous gene fused to gfp, and as noted earlier, in general silencing associated 22G-RNAs were only enriched for the gfp genes and not against the endogenous sequences in the transgenes.

It therefore seems that an anti-silencing pathway exists that licenses ‘self’ transcripts, protecting them from WAGO 22G-RNA silencing. The CSR-1 pathway is the perfect candidate for this activity, as its’ associated 22G-RNAs are known to target thousands of germline expressed transcripts without inducing silencing. Further dissection of these pathways is obviously necessary to prove CSR-1’s role, and whether the anti-silencing pathway also acts downstream of PRG-1, or just antagonistically to it.

The Miska lab agrees about the existence of the licensing pathway, however they suggest that some of the results indicate the existence of another mechanism. Ashe et al. reported that their piRNA sensor could be stably silenced in a prg-1 independent manner, but only if it had been present in a heterozygous state for multiple generations. This is evidence of a mechanism for detecting unpaired chromatin during meiosis. Shirayama et al’s findings too are indicative of a mechanism for detecting unpaired alleles. This could have significant implications evolutionarily, as it may facilitate the phenotypic expression of recessive traits.

One can describe this self and non-self recognition system as a type of acquired genetic immune system. Although, as yet, the details are only understood in outline, it appears to be a exquisitely finely tuned, and effective system. Until recently no viruses were known to infect C. elegans. This system must be part of the reason why. There are still major questions about to what extent transposons are controlled by the piRNA system in C. elegans and how much of its’ functionality is devoted to the regulation of endogenous genes. As is evident from this series of posts, C. elegans has so many different AGOs, and so many different facets to it’s RNAi systems (germline + soma RNAi, nuclear + cytoplasmic RNAi, RNAe etc) that it can be very difficult to dissect them from each other and then be able to see them in the round. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this work is the light shed on piRNA and RNAi systems in vertebrates and Drosophila. Secondary siRNA systems have not been found in these organisms, so this system of genetic immunity does not work in the same way in these other clades. The 21U-RNA triggering 22G-RNA generation mechanism has been likened to the amplification of secondary piRNAs by the ping-pong amplification system in Drosophila (a system missing in C. elegans). However, the most fascinating aspect of this work could be the light shed on vertebrate piRNA systems. Hundreds of thousands of ‘pachytene’ piRNAs, without known targets, are expressed in the mammalian germline. Do these piRNAs also tolerate mismatches when binding? And do they also mediate a genome surveillance system capable of detecting non-self transcripts? or unmatched chromatin? Are mammalian transcripts marked in some way to avoid this silencing? No doubt these C. elegans studies will invigorate research in mammalian piRNAs, and no doubt I’ll revisit it soon.

See also: Epigenetic Licensing of a Sex Determination Gene
The CSR-1 siRNA pathway gets more enigmatic

Bagijn MP, Goldstein LD, Sapetschnig A, Weick EM, Bouasker S, Lehrbach NJ, Simard MJ, & Miska EA (2012). Function, targets, and evolution of Caenorhabditis elegans piRNAs. Science (New York, N.Y.), 337 (6094), 574-8 PMID: 22700655

Lee HC, Gu W, Shirayama M, Youngman E, Conte D Jr, & Mello CC (2012). C. elegans piRNAs Mediate the Genome-wide Surveillance of Germline Transcripts. Cell, 150 (1), 78-87 PMID: 22738724

Ashe A, Sapetschnig A, Weick EM, Mitchell J, Bagijn MP, Cording AC, Doebley AL, Goldstein LD, Lehrbach NJ, Le Pen J, Pintacuda G, Sakaguchi A, Sarkies P, Ahmed S, & Miska EA (2012). piRNAs Can Trigger a Multigenerational Epigenetic Memory in the Germline of C. elegans. Cell, 150 (1), 88-99 PMID: 22738725

Shirayama M, Seth M, Lee HC, Gu W, Ishidate T, Conte D Jr, & Mello CC (2012). piRNAs Initiate an Epigenetic Memory of Nonself RNA in the C. elegans Germline. Cell, 150 (1), 65-77 PMID: 22738726

Interacting small RNA pathways in worms 3: CSR-1 associated 22G-RNAs

Anaphase during the first mitosis of a C. elegans embryo. Microtubules (green) are pulling the two sets of daughter chromosomes (blue) towards the centrosomes (yellow).

During mitosis, duplicated chromosomes are separated and segregated into two daughter cells. This is achieved by the action of spindle microtubules. In metaphase, microtubules radiating from centrosomes at two poles in the cell, attach to the condensed chromosomes at proteinaceous structures called kinetochores. The daughter chromosomes are then pulled slowly towards opposite poles during anaphase. Mostly, eukaryotes have monocentric chromosomes – meaning that each chromosome contains one centromere. Kinetochores are associated with domains of heterochromatin close to the centromeres. This pericentric heterochromatin is composed of repetitive sequences, and is generally transcriptionally silenced.

An important feature of the mechanisms stabilising the heterochromatic state in some organisms are small RNAs. In the fission yeast Schizosaccharomyces pombe an RdRP-dependent population of small RNAs, directed against repetitive sequence, has been shown to target pericentromeric heterochromatin, stabilising the centromeres. Perturbations to this pathway therefore lead to mitotic chromosome segregation defects.

Not all organisms’ chromosomes contain single centromeres. Nematodes have holocentric chromosomes in which multiple spindle attachments are made into continuous kinetochores spanning the length of the chromosomes. The assembly of centromeres and kinetochores in both monocentric and holocentric chromosomes have many conserved features. For instance, the histone variant HCP-3/CENP-A is found in centromeric nucleosomes. Unlike in monocentric chromosomes though, in nematodes it is incorporated into the whole poleward face of condensed chromosomes.

In C. elegans, a number of mutations affecting components of RNAi pathways were found to cause mitotic and meiotic chromosome segregation defects. As discussed in the previous post, these included drh-3 (encoding a helicase necessary for the biosynthesis of 22G-RNAs), and the Argonaute protein encoding csr-1. Claycomb et al. found that mutations in two additional genes, the RdRP encoding ego-1, and the tudor domain protein encoding ekl-1, caused similar defects.  These included oocytes with abnormal complements of chromosomes, underproliferated germlines, and high incidence of males (him) phenotypes. Partial mutant alleles of csr-1 or drh-3 had low proportions of viable progeny, with many worms dying at various points in embryogenesis.

In embryos depleted of any of these factors, chromosomes initially condense normally in prophase. However, during metaphase the chromosomes fail to align into ‘plates’ perpendicular to the long axis of the spindles, and at anaphase the researchers observed chromosomal bridging across the midzone of the spindle. This led to the accumulation of cells with abnormal chromosomal complements, and the death of embryos.

Claycomb et al. then looked at the distribution of the centromeric histone variant HCP-3/CENP-A in RNAi depleted embryos. They found that although it was loaded onto chromosomes, instead of the normal poleward localisation, it was distributed in a disorganised pattern over the metaphase chromosomes. Similarly disorganised patterns were seen with an array of centromere and kinetochore proteins, as well as proteins necessary for chromosomal condensation and cohesion.

Deep sequencing of the small RNAs associated with CSR-1, showed that this argonaute binds 22G-RNAs targeted against protein-coding genes. This population of 22G-RNAs are dependent upon drh-3, ego-1, and ekl-1 and were antisense to at least 4191 genes. Interestingly, in glp-4 mutants that lack a germline, 22G-RNAs corresponding to ~80% of the CSR-1 target mRNAs were strongly depleted. This suggests that the CSR-1 associated 22G-RNAs originate in the germline and target genes expressed in the germline. No differences were found in the transcriptional profiles of csr-1 mutants and wild type worms, showing that CSR-1 22G-RNA system does not work by silencing its’ targets.

During the development of the germline, DRH-3, EGO-1 and CSR-1 all localise to P-granules – perinuclear nuage structures important for germline specification and small RNA mediated activities. In later stages of oocyte maturation CSR-1 becomes enriched in nuclei. In mitotic cells all four factors were enriched in prophase nuclei, and could be observed to localise to metaphase chromosomes. Using chromatin immunoprecipitation (ChIP), Claycomb et al. demonstrated that CSR-1 directly bound genomic loci targeted by CSR-1 associated 22G-RNAs.

These slightly disparate lines of evidence can be condensed into a basic model by which the CSR-1 22G-RNA pathway contributes to the regulation of chromosome segregation. CSR-1 associated 22G-RNAs are generated in the germline. Their biogenesis occurs in P-granules and depends on the RdRP complex (comprised of the helicase DRH-3, the RdRP EGO-1, and the tudor domain protein EKL-1) acting upon transcripts of germline expressed genes. Guided by these 22G-RNAs, CSR-1 translocates to the nucleus, and via chromatin modification defines chromosomal domains. It appears that there is an inverse relationship between domains targeted by CSR-1 22G-RNAs and those enriched for the centromeric histone variant HCP-3/CENP-A. Hence, CSR-1 marks domains adjacent to centromeric domains. As CSR-1 22G-RNA targets are distributed relatively uniformly across the genome, the defined domains can serve to position kinetochores along the length of the chromosomes. CSR-1 22G-RNAs are maternally inherited, and the CSR-1 defined chromatin domains are epigenetically stable, enabling the correct assembly of kinetochores during mitoses throughout development.

It is interesting to note that two related 22G-RNA pathways, those associated with WAGO or CSR-1 argonautes, with a similar biogenesis pathway, can have such diverse cellular roles. As we have seen the WAGO 22G-RNA pathway acts to silence deleterious transcription. The CSR-1 22G-RNA pathway doesn’t silence its’ targets but instead intricately organises chromosome structure to ensure proper segregation. Does this pathway have roles beyond this function? In later posts in this series I’ll cover papers that suggest it may also participate in a global genome surveillance network.

See also a post on a paper that gives a radically different take on the CSR-1 pathway: The CSR-1 siRNA pathway gets more enigmatic

Important ideas regarding the role of the CSR-1 pathway being involved in epigenetic licensing are discussed in these two posts:
Interacting small RNA pathways in worms 5: Global Genome Surveillance
Epigenetic Licensing of a Sex Determination Gene

Claycomb JM, Batista PJ, Pang KM, Gu W, Vasale JJ, van Wolfswinkel JC, Chaves DA, Shirayama M, Mitani S, Ketting RF, Conte D Jr, & Mello CC (2009). The Argonaute CSR-1 and its 22G-RNA cofactors are required for holocentric chromosome segregation. Cell, 139 (1), 123-34 PMID: 19804758