Tag Archives: Drosophila

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

Uploading piRNAs to the Cloud.

A new paper finds a protein linking piRNA transcription with processing in nuage.

The Piwi/piRNA system is responsible for protecting the germline from the mutagenic effects of transposon mobilisation. As summarised in an earlier post, in Drosophila large arrays of transposon fragments, located in pericentromeric and subtelomeric chromatin domains give rise to long piRNA cluster transcripts. These transcripts are then processed to produce the 23-30 nt piRNAs which, when complexed with Piwi-family argonaute proteins effect the post-transcriptional silencing of transposons. Although a more limited piRNA system functions in the somatic follicle cells surrounding the Drosophila egg chamber, the bulk of germline transposon silencing is performed by the system active in the germline siblings of the oocyte – the nurse cells. Here, dual-strand piRNA cluster transcripts are processed in the nuage, a perinuclear electron-dense cytoplasmic structure, where the ‘ping-pong’ system of reciprocal cutting and complexing between the Piwi proteins Aubergine (Aub) and Ago3 leads to piRNA amplification.

Nuage is a hallmark of germline cytoplasm in animals, and appears to be the site of both piRNA processing and transposon silencing. A hierarchy of proteins responsible for the assembly and function of nuage has been revealed by studies in Drosophila. Vasa, a DEAD-box RNA-dependent helicase protein, is required for the localisation of Tudor and other Tudor-domain-containing (Tdrd) proteins. These serve as a platform for the piRNA system, binding Aub and Ago3. Defects in many of these piRNA biogenesis components do not just lead to uncontrolled transposon activity; rather, they affect the asymmetric localisation of RNAs in the developing oocyte – a process by which developmental prepattern is organised. Zheng et al. discovered that weak mutations in the uap56 gene caused similar defects, suggesting a potential role in piRNA biogenesis.

UAP56 is another DEAD-box containing RNA-binding protein. It is ubiquitously expressed, localised in nuclei and has previously been shown to be involved in mRNA splicing and export. Zheng et al. found that in nurse cells it localises to discrete foci in the periphery of the nucleus. This was a similar pattern to that of Rhino (Rhi), a Heterochromatin Protein 1 variant previously shown to associate with piRNA clusters. Indeed, UAP56 and Rhino co-localised ~99% of the time in nurse cell nuclei.  Mutations in either uap56 or rhi caused a failure in the focal localisation of the other protein, showing their co-dependence.

When Vasa was imaged at the same time, it became apparent that it localised to foci in the nuage directly across the nuclear envelope from UAP-56-Rhi foci. Co-labelling with a nucleoporin showed that in fact UAP56-Rhi foci and Vasa foci directly abut nuclear pores from either side.

In the absence of functional UAP56 the nuage fails to assemble properly; Vasa, Aub and Ago3 all fail to localise. Similar effects are observed in rhi mutants, placing both UAP56 and Rhino upstream of Vasa as extrinsic factors necessary for nuage assembly. The uap56 mutants also fail to produce a large part of the proper complement of piRNAs leading to a consequent mobilisation of transposons. No effects on the level of genic mRNAs were detectable. Due to the failure of nuage assembly, the uap56 mutants also display germline DNA damage and the morphological defects caused by mislocalisation of asymmetric RNAs.

DEAD-box containing proteins act as ATP-dependent RNA clamps. As Rhino is known to associate with dual-strand piRNA clusters, Zhang et al postulated that UAP56 may be binding and stabilising nascent cluster transcripts. Indeed piRNA cluster transcripts could be co-immunoprecipitated with UAP56 and Vasa.

The data therefore suggests an attractive model in which cluster transcripts are passed across the nuclear pore between the two DEAD-box containing proteins, UAP56 and Vasa. The authors term this a nuclear pore spanning piRNA processing compartment. piRNA cluster transcripts must in some way be marked and specifically transported via the trans– nuclear pore compartment.

Running through this work as a consistent undertone are the implicit links to the broader RNA processing systems. The nuage is obviously intricately linked to the differential transportation of RNAs from the nurse cells and around the oocyte. UAP56 has other roles in mRNA splicing and export from the nucleus. What exactly are the links between the germline specific role of UAP56 and the general RNA splicing and export machinery? Zhang et al end with the enticing observation that mutations in two different genes encoding conserved exon junction splicing components also lead to similar asymmetric RNA localisation defects. It appears that the control of piRNA processing and transposon silencing in nuage is intimately linked to broader networks controlling germline specification and the patterning of the oocyte. Although the different strands of these systems are difficult to tease apart, Drosophila oogenesis continues to offer an unparalled paradigm for their investigation. The piRNA system is widely conserved in animals, but there does appear to be quite a lot of plasticity in its specifics. For instance, as discussed at length in this series of posts, in C. elegans, piRNAs are individually transcribed. I’d be very interested to find out whether homologues of Rhino and UAP56 play any role in this system? I’ll riff on the similarities and differences of piRNA systems and their links to development some more in future posts.

Zhang, F., Wang, J., Xu, J., Zhang, Z., Koppetsch, B., Schultz, N., Vreven, T., Meignin, C., Davis, I., Zamore, P., Weng, Z., & Theurkauf, W. (2012). UAP56 Couples piRNA Clusters to the Perinuclear Transposon Silencing Machinery Cell, 151 (4), 871-884 DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2012.09.040

Lin, H. (2012). Capturing the Cloud: UAP56 in Nuage Assembly and Function Cell, 151 (4), 699-701 DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2012.10.026

Opening up the RNA-chromatin network

In eukaryotic nuclei, DNA is coiled around histone proteins to form nucleosomes. The pattern by which nucleosomes are compacted into higher-order structures determines the accessibility of chromatin and hence it’s transcriptional activity. Many different factors, including the linker histone H1, histone modifications, chromatin remodelling enzymes and non-histone proteins play important roles in structuring chromatin. Various classes of RNA have also been implicated in regulating the higher-order structure of chromatin. Among many examples; Argonaute associated small silencing RNAs are known to sometimes exert their inhibitory effects by directing histone modifications or DNA methylation and lncRNAs have been shown to serve as cis-acting scaffolds coordinating the action of histone-modifying enzymes. It’s been known for decades that RNA makes up a proportion of chromatin, but exactly what types of RNAs and what their roles are is not yet clear. A new paper in Molecular Cell (Schubert et al.) sets out to answer these questions, characterising chromatin-associated RNAs in Drosophila and finding an important role for RNA in regulating chromatin compaction and accessibility.

Schubert et al. found that RNAs were involved in maintaining the accessibility of chromatin using an assay in which chromatin is digested by a nuclease (DNase). This digestion creates a ladder of DNA of different sizes on a gel, ranging from single nucleosomal fragments to far larger pieces. The extent of digestion is dependent on the level of chromatin condensation; the more compacted the nucleosomal structure, the more refractory it will be to DNase digestion. The researchers found that incubation of chromatin with an RNase prior to DNase treatment resulted in more compacted chromatin; DNase digestion was less efficient. Using different RNases and inhibitors they discovered that the RNA population involved was single-stranded and synthesised by RNA polymerase II.

Similar results were found when the authors used density-gradient centrifugation to isolate chromatin. They found a fraction of RNA associated with chromatin (caRNA) that when digested, resulted in chromatin becoming more compacted and shifting to higher density fractions. Interestingly, this RNA-dependent chromatin condensation effect is reversible; when the compacted chromatin was extracted and incubated with fresh cellular extracts, it reopens, again migrating in lighter fractions, re-associated with RNA. This caRNA-dependent chromatin accessibility is also dependent on chromatin-associated proteins, as it could not be rescued under denaturing conditions.

Using mass spectrometry, the authors identified 59 proteins that had lower affinity for chromatin after removal of RNA. One of these was the highly abundant chromatin decondensation factor 31 (Df31). A study that I have long intended to write about (Filion et al. 2010) used the binding of Df31 and 52 other chromatin associated proteins to determine that rather than dividing Drosophila chromatin into two types: transcriptionally repressed heterochromatin and active euchromatin, we should instead think in terms of five different classes which they colour coded. Green, blue and black chromatin are broadly transcriptionally repressed, whilst red and yellow are euchromatic and more transcriptionally active. Df31 is found bound to these red and yellow types of more open chromatin. Schubert et al found that Df31 chromatin binding is stabilised by caRNAs. Df31 binds histone H3 in the absence of RNA, but its affinity is substantially enhanced by the addition of RNA. RNAi knockdown of Df31 causes a fraction of genomic DNA to be more compacted.

Deep sequencing of the pool of caRNAs revealed that they were enriched for non-coding RNAs, especially a class termed small nucleolar RNAs (snoRNAs). snoRNAs are known to guide the modification of bases in ribosomal, transfer and messenger RNAs. They have also been implicated in RNA editing and splicing. Schubert et al. found that 30 of the 186 snoRNAs expressed in Drosophila embryos were found associated with chromatin. Using fluorescent in situ hybridisation, they showed that two of the most highly enriched snoRNAs could be visualised binding to the interbands of Drosophila polytene chromosomes (ie. euchromatin). These two snoRNAs were able to ‘rescue’ compacted chromatin in the density-gradient experiments, and were shown to directly interact with Df31.

The authors also found that extracts of human cells could rescue RNase treated compacted chromatin, and that snoRNAs are found associated with chromatin in human cells.

Schubert et al have therefore characterised a novel conserved role for snoRNAs mediating the accessibility of higher-order chromatin structures. As none of the protein components known to complex with snoRNAs in snoRNPs were identified in the mass spectrometry experiments, it appears that snoRNAs form distinct ribonucleoprotein complexes to mediate this chromatin associated role. Df31 is one such important interactor, linking chromatin-associated snoRNAs and histone proteins within nucleosomes to maintain accessibility of red and yellow chromatin. However, the knockdown of Df31 resulted in far more limited and localised chromatin compaction than RNase treatment, suggesting that the role of caRNAs goes beyond the maintenance of open euchromatin, but also to regulating heterochromatic accessibility. Seeing as 58 other chromatin proteins, as well as many other snoRNAs and other caRNAs, were implicated in RNA-associated chromatin accessibility functions, this initial study has just revealed the tip of an iceberg. Just how this RNA-chromatin network functions to maintain accessibility requires a lot of work. As with many of the best studies, the light shone serves to partially illuminate the scale of our ignorance.

Schubert T, Pusch MC, Diermeier S, Benes V, Kremmer E, Imhof A, & Längst G (2012). Df31 Protein and snoRNAs Maintain Accessible Higher-Order Structures of Chromatin. Molecular cell PMID: 23022379

Filion GJ, van Bemmel JG, Braunschweig U, Talhout W, Kind J, Ward LD, Brugman W, de Castro IJ, Kerkhoven RM, Bussemaker HJ, & van Steensel B (2010). Systematic protein location mapping reveals five principal chromatin types in Drosophila cells. Cell, 143 (2), 212-24 PMID: 20888037

Upstream ORFs and Regulation of Translation

Protein expression can be rapidly and responsively regulated at the level of translation. Translational regulation commonly involves trans-acting factors such as miRNA complexes or RNA-binding proteins, specifically binding cis-regulatory sequences. A study from last year – Medenbach et al. – has demonstrated an interesting mechanism in which translation of a transcript is repressed by the initiation of translation at a short upstream open reading frame (uORF).

Sexual organisms need a mechanism to balance the levels of transcription from sex chromosomes between sexes. In mammals this ‘dosage compensation’ is achieved by inactivating one of the X chromosomes in females; Drosophila instead hypertranscribes the single X chromosomes of male flies. In females, hypertranscription is prevented by the translational silencing of male-specific lethal (msl)-2 mRNA by a key sex determination factor, the RNA-binding protein Sex-lethal (SXL).

SXL exerts translational control on msl-2 transcripts by two distinct mechanisms. Binding in the 3’UTR, in conjunction with a co-repressor, it blocks the recruitment of the ribosomal pre-initiation complex to the 5’UTR. Any pre-initiation complexes that escape this control are then challenged by a failsafe mechanism; SXL bound to the 5’UTR causes destabilisation of the small ribosomal subunit upstream of the SXL-binding site.

Medenbach et al. analysed the mechanisms of this 5’UTR SXL-mediated translational control, using constructs in which altered msl-2 5’UTRs drove expression of a reporter gene in a cell-free system. The msl-2 5’UTR contains three small upstream ORFs. Mutations preventing initiation in the first two of these uORFs did not impair translational control, but when the third uAUG was mutated the reporter construct was translationally de-repressed. This effect was dependent on a SXL-binding site slightly downstream of the uORF, mutation of which abrogated the derepression. The repression was dependent on the presence of SXL. By itself the uORF reduced translation of the downstream reading frame two fold, but in the presence of SXL, downstream translation was repressed more than 14 fold.

The uORF encodes a di-peptide (Methionine-Threonine). By swapping the threonine-encoding codon and the subsequent stop codon, and by deleting the stop codon, the researchers showed that translational repression required uORF initiation and not translational elongation or termination.

Medenbach et al. went on to investigate just how widespread this mechanism of translational control may be. Computationally scanning the Drosophila transcriptome, they found that 58% of 5’UTRs contain one or more upstream initiation codons, whilst 4.3% contain putative SXL binding sites. 268 mRNAs (1.3%) contain both a uORF and a SXL-binding motif at the appropriate distance from one another to make them candidates for a similar mode of SXL-mediated translational repression. They then tested 12 of these candidate 5’UTRs in their reporter assay, and found that 6 of them did indeed mediate SXL-dependent translational repression. They also demonstrated that the regulatory cassette consisting of the uORF, the intervening 21nt, and the SXL-binding site was capable of mediating repression when inserted into the 5’UTR of an unrelated gene.

uORFs have previously been shown to regulate translation of the main reading fame in other contexts. The authors reference two examples using different mechanisms; a system involving termination and reinitiation from 4uORFs in a budding yeast transcript that doesn’t require any trans-acing factors; and another fungal mechanism in which ribosomal stalling at the termination codon of an uORF causes the mRNA to be degraded. In contrast, the translation regulation system in the msl-2 5’UTR utilises a binary module requiring only translational initiation at the uORF and binding of SXL. How exactly this works with respect to the ribosomal pre-initiation complex is not yet clear. Recognition of an initiation codon triggers a conformational change in this complex from a scanning ‘open’ structure to a closed conformation, followed by subunit joining to make a complete translationally competent ribosome. The authors found that SXL interacts with two subunits of the elF3 initiation factor, but weren’t able to prove the importance of these interactions for translational repression.

Medenbach et al’s computational scan of the Drosophila genome showed that the use of this binary module is an important mechanism by which SXL regulates the expression of many proteins. Similar uORF modules may be utilised by other RNA binding proteins, but it’s also possible that other uORFs function in quite different ways, as suggested by the examples from fungi. What’s beyond doubt, seeing as more than half of mammalian and Drosophila genes contain them is that uORFs are an important factor in translational regulation.

Medenbach J, Seiler M, & Hentze MW (2011). Translational control via protein-regulated upstream open reading frames. Cell, 145 (6), 902-13 PMID: 21663794

Amyloid-like oligomers and long-term memory.

A new paper in Cell, shows that the formation of amyloid-like oligomers of a RNA-binding protein in synaptic membranes is necessary for the persistence of memories in Drosophila.

If memory is the maintenance of learning associated changes in synaptic efficacy and number, and these synaptic modifications are associated with changes in protein composition, how do they persist for years when individual protein molecules are turned over in days?

Cytoplasmic polyadenylation element-binding proteins (CPEBs) are a family of RNA-binding proteins that have been shown to regulate activity-dependent protein synthesis at synapses. A Drosophila CPEB, Orb2, has been shown to be required for the long-term persistence of memory (Keleman et al.). Previous studies on a CPEB from the sea slug Aplysia, had shown that it had prion-like properties, in that it could exist in two conformational states: a monomeric form and a self-perpetuating multimeric form with amyloid-like properties. Synaptic stimulation leads to the conversion of Aplysia CPEB into the multimeric form, and the formation of a self-sustaining synaptic mark. Blocking the activity of multimeric ApCPEB inhibited the long-term facilitation of a synaptic response (Si et al.).  Based on these Aplysia studies, Majumdar et al. hypothesised that Orb2’s role in Drosophila long-term memory could also be mediated by activity-dependent formation of amyloid-like oligomers.

Purifying Orb2 from Drosophila head extracts, Majumdar et al. show that it either exists in a monomeric form, or in oligomers consisting of between two and six Orb2 molecules. Orb2 oligomers are resistant to denaturation by heat or detergents, showing that they have amyloid-like characteristics. The oligomeric form of Orb2 appears to be localised to synaptic membranes, whilst the monomeric form is mainly found in cell bodies. Stimulation of neurons involved in memory formation increased the level of oligomeric Orb2.

Majumdar et al. go on to show that there are two different isoforms of Orb2 involved in the formation of Orb2 oligomers, Orb2A and Orb2B. Although the Orb2 oligomers found in vivo were mainly composed of Orb2B, the researchers found Orb2 oligomerisation requires Orb2A. Both isoforms contain a glutamine rich unstructured prion-like domain that acts as a substrate for oligomerisation, but a short 8 amino acid N-terminal domain of Orb2A catalyses the oligomerisation reaction. Orb2A appears to regulate the formation of amyloid-like Orb2 oligomers.

The previous study (Keleman et al.) that showed that Orb2 was involved in long-term memory stabilisation had used a technique that reduced the Orb2 concentration. By generating flies that carried a single point mutation in the Orb2A N-terminal domain, specifically impairing Orb2 oligomerisation, Majumdar et al. went on to show Orb2 oligomerisation is necessary for long-term memory persistence.

This work is exciting on two different fronts. It shows a mechanism for the generation of stable synaptic marks by the formation of amyloid-like oligomers. This could be a more widespread phenomenon underlying memory formation and persistence. More broadly, this study yields insight into potential physiological roles for amyloid formation and prion-like mechanisms.

Insoluble amyloid-like aggregations are a common pathological characteristic in human neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. In the case of prion diseases such as Creutzfeld-Jacob disease, amyloidogenic forms of Prion-Protein propagate the disease by seeding the conformational changes to the non-pathogenic form. The authors of the paper do not call the Orb2 oligomers prions, as the mechanisms underlying oligomerisation are not understood. However, in the case of ApCPEB, multimerisation was shown to be self-sustaining, and hence prion-like.

Is there a link between the preponderance of amyloid associated neurodegenerative diseases and the role of amyloid-like oligomers in memory? It is probably unwise to extrapolate too far from these results. However, one could postulate that if this is a widespread mechanism of memory formation, amyloid associated diseases could be more likely to affect the brain. Likewise, if amyloid-like protein multimerisation has normal physiological roles in the brain, it could be a more permissive environment for amyloid formation than other tissues.

Majumdar, A., Cesario, W., White-Grindley, E., Jiang, H., Ren, F., Khan, M., Li, L., Choi, E., Kannan, K., Guo, F., Unruh, J., Slaughter, B., & Si, K. (2012). Critical Role of Amyloid-like Oligomers of Drosophila Orb2 in the Persistence of Memory Cell, 148 (3), 515-529 DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2012.01.004

Si, K., Choi, Y., White-Grindley, E., Majumdar, A., & Kandel, E. (2010). Aplysia CPEB Can Form Prion-like Multimers in Sensory Neurons that Contribute to Long-Term Facilitation Cell, 140 (3), 421-435 DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2010.01.008

Keleman, K., Krüttner, S., Alenius, M., & Dickson, B. (2007). Function of the Drosophila CPEB protein Orb2 in long-term courtship memory Nature Neuroscience, 10 (12), 1587-1593 DOI: 10.1038/nn1996

small silencing RNAs. I: Piwi-interacting RNAs.

Three major classes of small RNAs involved in gene silencing have been found in animals: microRNAs (miRNAs), small-interfering RNAs (siRNAs) and Piwi-interacting RNAs (piRNAs). miRNAs are involved in the regulation of mRNA stability and translation, whilst the main purpose of the siRNA and piRNA pathways appears to be the defense of the cell and genome from viruses and transposable elements. Unlike the other two systems that are ubiquitously active, the piRNA pathway is generally only active in germline cells, the most important locus of defense against transposons.

A common feature of all three pathways is the formation of RNA-induced silencing complexes (RISCs), composed of a small RNA bound to an Argonaute family protein. The small RNA guides RISC to specific target RNAs, resulting in target silencing (generally by the Argonaute protein ‘slicing’ the cognate RNA). A key stage in the miRNA and siRNA silencing pathways is the recognition of double stranded RNAs, and their cleavage by Dicer proteins. This is not a feature of the piRNA system. Another difference is that piRNAs range from 22nt to 30nt in length, whilst siRNAs and miRNAs are 21 or 22-24nt long respectively. When piRNAs were first discovered they were called repeat-associated small-interfering RNAs (rasiRNAs). However, as they are not always associated with repeat sequences and as they bind a specific clade of Argonaute proteins, the PIWI family, they were subsequently renamed.

The piRNA system in Drosophila

A Drosophila melanogaster egg chamber. The large nurse cell nuclei are visible in the upper half, whilst the follicle cells cover the oocyte in the lower half.

The piRNA transposon silencing system has been most comprehensively analysed during oogenesis in the fruitfly, Drosophila melanogaster. Within a Drosophila egg chamber, the germline cells (fifteen nurse cells and the oocyte) share a common syncytial cytoplasm. They are surrounded by a layer of somatic follicle cells, which exchange developmental signals and nutrients with the germline cells. The Drosophila genome harbours over a hundred transposon families, including representatives of all three major classes (LTR and non-LTR retrotransposons, and DNA elements). Some retrotransposons, such as the gypsy family, form viral particles that have been shown to be able to invade the germline from the follicle cells via cellular transport vesicles. Therefore the germline is under threat from transposable elements primarily from within, but also from the somatic follicle cells. Two different variants of the piRNA system function in the germline and the somatic follicle cells: a more complicated system involving three PIWI family Argonaute proteins and a piRNA amplification system functions in the germline, whilst a simpler system involving only one PIWI protein works in the follicle cells to silence a more limited repertoire of retrotransposons.

The piRNA pathway in somatic follicle cells

Approximately 70% of somatic piRNAs map to transposons or transposon fragments. Of these 90% are antisense to active transposons. Mapping piRNAs to genomic sequence has yielded a great insight into genomic structure and the piRNA system of transposon control: piRNAs are derived from large clusters of densely packed, inactive transposon copies and fragments. piRNA clusters are a conserved feature of piRNA biology. They generally span dozens to hundreds of kilobases and are located in the heterochromatin associated with centromeres or telomeres. In the case of Drosophila somatic follicle cells two piRNA-clusters dominate: The flamenco locus and cluster 20A. Follicle cell piRNAs from these clusters are derived from one DNA strand, meaning that transcription is unidirectional. In flamenco and cluster 20A, the transposon fragments are generally oriented antisense to the direction of transcription, explaining the strong antisense bias of somatic follicle cell piRNAs. A P-element insertion at the beginning of the flamenco cluster blocks piRNA production from the whole 180kb cluster, suggesting that the formation of long single stranded transcripts of piRNA clusters is a necessary stage of piRNA biogenesis. However, the mechanisms of piRNA generation are not clear. It appears likely that the long piRNA precursor transcripts are stochastically cut into smaller fragments. Piwi then selectively binds fragments with a 5′ uridine (75% of Piwi-bound piRNAs have a 5′ uridine residue), and the pre-piRNAs are then 3′ trimmed to generate the final piRNA.

The germline piRNA pathway and ping-pong amplification.

In addition to Piwi, Drosophila ovarian germline cells express two related PIWI family Argonaute proteins: Aubergine (Aub) and AGO3. Unlike Piwi, which is localised to the nucleus, Aub and AGO3 are associated with an electron-dense peri-nuclear region of cytoplasm called nuage. Most importantly, they act together in a sophisticated piRNA amplification loop that is dependent on target expression, termed the ping-pong cycle. In a simplified version: Aub complexed with an antisense piRNA targets and slices a sense transcript of an active transposon, resulting in the production of novel sense piRNA species which are loaded onto AGO3. The AGO3-piRNA complexes then cleave complementary piRNA cluster transcripts, resulting in the production of novel antisense piRNA to be complexed with Aub. The ping-pong cycle results in the amplification of sets of antisense and sense piRNAs that are 10nt out of register with each other, suggesting the site of Aub slicer activity and providing a useful signal that shows that ping-pong amplification has occurred.

In the germline, more piRNA clusters are active, representing a larger spectrum of transposons. They are also expressed bi-directionally. An outstanding question is why this doesn’t trigger ping-pong amplification? The most likely reason is that the processes of piRNA biogenesis and transposon silencing are tightly localised and regulated. The roles of other proteins in these processes are starting to be understood. Proteins containing Tudor domains appear to be very important in the localisation and function of Aub and AGO3 in the nuage.

Many other intriguing aspects of piRNA biology are yet to be understood. Although the bulk of piRNAs are directed against transposons, some are involved in the regulation of cellular mRNAs. These piRNAs are derived from mRNAs rather than cluster transcripts: Are these transcripts marked in some way to be processed into piRNAs? The links between the primary piRNA biogenesis pathway and the ping-pong amplification system are also poorly understood. An interesting aspect of the piRNA system active in mouse spermatogenesis, is that the nucleus localised mouse PIWI family protein MIWI2 has been implicated in guiding de novo DNA methylation at transposon loci. Is this a more widespread phenomenon?

The piRNA system has been likened to an acquired immune response and works together with the (more acute response) siRNA pathway in transposon silencing. Future posts will discuss the other small RNA systems, and go further into piRNA biology.

Senti, K., & Brennecke, J. (2010). The piRNA pathway: a fly’s perspective on the guardian of the genome Trends in Genetics, 26 (12), 499-509 DOI: 10.1016/j.tig.2010.08.007

Khurana, J., & Theurkauf, W. (2010). piRNAs, transposon silencing, and Drosophila germline development The Journal of Cell Biology, 191 (5), 905-913 DOI: 10.1083/jcb.201006034

of further interest: piRNAs in the brain: epigenetics and memory