Publication Date


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Academic Program

Biochemistry and Molecular Pharmacology


RNA Therapeutics Institute

First Thesis Advisor

Phillip D. Zamore, Ph.D.


RNA Interference, Drosophila melanogaster, Gene Expression Regulation, RNA, Small Interfering


RNA interference (RNAi) is an evolutionarily conserved, sequence-specific gene silencing pathway found in eukaryotes, in which 21-nucleotide, small interfering RNAs (siRNAs) guide destruction of a corresponding target mRNA. RNAi is a natural mechanism for both genome surveillance and gene regulation. Moreover, siRNAs can be transfected into cultured mammalian cells, causing the sequence-specific ‘knock down’ of an mRNA. My work in the Zamore lab has centered around the Drosophilain vitro system and cultured mammalian cells to study the RNA interference (RNAi) pathway. small interfering RNAs (siRNAs) are incorporated into the RNA-induced silencing complex (RISC), which culminates in the cleavage of a complementary target mRNA. Previous work proved that certain structural features of siRNAs are essential for RNAi in flies, including the requirement for 5´ phosphates and 3´ hydroxyl groups. In cultured mammalian cells, the requirement for a 5´ phosphate also holds true, but we found no evidence to support the necessity for 3´ hydroxyls in either system. In addition, siRNAs can act as single strands entering the pathway downstream of double-stranded siRNAs, both of which are competent in directing the cleavage of its cognate mRNA at a single site.

While these key features are a requirement for functional siRNAs, alone they do not determine the efficiency to which an siRNA can enter the RISC. In fact, both strands of an siRNA can enter RISC to a different degree as determined by the stabilities of the 5´ ends of the siRNA strand, a phenomenon termed ‘functional asymmetry’. This characteristic is also reflected in another class of small RNAs involved in gene silencing known as microRNAs (miRNAs), which are processed from long hairpin RNA structures into mature, single-stranded non-coding RNAs. The asymmetric loading of siRNAs suggests that miRNAs are initially generated from siRNA-like duplexes cleaved from the stem of the hairpins. The strand whose 5´ end is less tightly paired will be processed into the mature miRNA, while the other strand is destroyed. By applying the rules of siRNA asymmetry it is possible to predict which side of the stem will be processed into the mature miRNA, a finding verified experimentally by our lab and others. This discovery also has additional implications in designing highly effective siRNAs and in reducing siRNA off-target effects.

We used these results to design siRNAs that target the single nucleotide polymorphism in superoxide dismutase that causes the familial form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), but leave the wild-type mRNA intact and functional. Our experiments have helped define the ‘rules’ for creating SNP-specific siRNAs. In particular, we found that only siRNAs with a purine:purine mismatch to the allele not intended for destruction show good discrimination. The placement of the mismatch in a tiled set of siRNAs shows that mismatches located in the 5´ region of the siRNA, a region shown to be responsible for siRNA binding, can not discriminate between alleles. In contrast, mismatches in the 3´ region of the siRNA, the region contributing to catalysis, discriminate between wild-type and mutant alleles. This work is an important step in creating allele-specific siRNAs as therapeutics for dominant negative genetic diseases.

But how does RISC cleave its target? By isolating both the 5´ and 3´ cleavage products produced by RISC in the Drosophila in vitro system, we discovered that RISC acts as a Mg2+-dependent endonuclease that cleaves a single phosphodiester bond in the mRNA target, leaving 5´ phosphate and 3´ hydroxyl groups. These findings were a critical step in the demonstration that Argonaute, a protein known to be a component of RISC, is the RNAi endonuclease.



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