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Newly identified small-RNA pathway defends genome against the enemy within
Date:3/16/2014

within, the cell has devised stringent mechanisms to maintain tight control over transposon activity. The primary mechanism is the epigenetic code, a kind of secondary layer of genetic information that determines how our DNA is used. Epigenetic marks decorate human DNA, delineating active and inactive genes. Regions of the genome that are rich in transposons are heavily marked with inactivating signals, which silence transposons.

The problem for plants, in particular, is that some cells eliminate nearly all epigenetic marks during reproduction. "The loss of these marks puts the cell in tremendous danger, especially at critical times like reproduction," says CSHL postdoctoral fellow Kate Creasey, Ph.D., lead author on the paper appearing in Nature today. "There must be another mechanism to prevent this kind of widespread genomic disruption."

The CSHL team discovered a pathway that does precisely this. The pathway they describe acts as a fail-safe to prevent transposon damage when epigenetic silencing is lost. The cell uses small RNAs, known as microRNAs, to accomplish the task. MicroRNAs were already known to regulate gene expression during development. "Now we show that microRNAs actually target transposons when they are activated, for example in the germline (or reproductive cells)," says Martienssen. "This hints that they may have evolved as a transposon defense mechanism."

Working in collaboration with Professor Blake Meyers at the University of Delaware, Martienssen and his colleagues found that microRNAs silence transposons through a new class of small RNAs known as easiRNAs. Animals have a similar transposon defense mechanism, says Martienssen. "The pathway we have discovered parallels with small RNA systems in animal germlines (called piwi-interacting RNAs, or piRNAs) which also protect against transposons when the genome is being reprogrammed."


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Contact: Jaclyn Jansen
jjansen@cshl.edu
516-367-8455
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
Source:Eurekalert  

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