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
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