Publication Date


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Academic Program

Cell Biology


RNA Therapeutics Institute

First Thesis Advisor

Craig C. Mello


Caenorhabditis elegans, RNA Interference, RNA, Small Interfering


RNA interference (RNAi) in the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans is a type of homology-dependent post-transcriptional gene silencing induced by dsRNA. This dissertation describes the genetic analysis of the RNA interference pathway and inheritance properties associated with this phenomenon. We demonstrate that the RNAi effect can be observed in the progeny of the injected animal for at least two generations. Transmission of the interference effect occurs through a dominant extragenic agent. The wild-type activities of the RNAi pathway genes rde-l and rde-4 are required for the formation of this interfering agent but are not needed for interference thereafter. In contrast, the rde-2 and mut-7 genes are required downstream for interference. These findings provide evidence for germline transmission of an extragenic sequence-specific silencing factor and implicate rde-l and rde-4in the formation of the inherited agent.

Other forms of homology-dependent silencing in C. elegansinclude co-suppression and transcriptional silencing of transgenes in the germline. We demonstrate that silencing of a germline transgene can be initiated by injected dsRNA, via the RNAi pathway, and then maintained on a different level. This observation indicates that post-transcriptional and transcriptional silencing of homologous genes could be connected.

This dissertation also describes the connection between RNAi and developmental pathways of gene regulation in C. elegans. We show that inactivation of genes related to RNAi pathway genes, a homolog of Drosophila Dicer (dcr-l), and two homologs of rde-1 (alg-l and alg-2) cause heterochronic phenotypes similar to lin-4 and let-7 mutations. Further we show that dcr-l, alg-l, and alg-2 are necessary for the maturation and activity of the lin-4 and let-7small temporal RNAs that regulate stage-specific development. Our findings suggest that a common processing machinery generates guide RNAs that mediate both RNAi and endogenous gene regulation.

Finally, this study illustrates the detection of small interfering RNAs (siRNAs), intermediates in the RNAi process, and describes requirements for their accumulation. We show that, in the course of RNAi induced by feeding dsRNA, C. elegans accumulate only siRNAs complementary to the target gene. This accumulation depends on the presence of the target sequence and requires activities of several RNAi-pathway genes. We show that selective retention or amplification of RNAi-active molecules can create a reservoir of memory antisense siRNAs that prevent future expression of the genes with complementary sequence. This suggests a parallel at the molecular level with the clonal selection of antibody forming cells and in the vertebrate immune system.


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