Publication Date


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Academic Program

Biochemistry and Molecular Pharmacology


RNA Therapeutics Institute

First Thesis Advisor

Phillip Zamore, PhD.


RNA Interference, RNA, Small Interfering, RNA-Induced Silencing Complex, Schizosaccharomyces pombe Proteins, Drosophila Proteins


RNA silencing is an evolutionary conserved sequence-specific mechanism of regulation of gene expression. RNA interference (RNAi), a type of RNA silencing in animals, is based on recognition and endonucleolytic cleavage of target mRNA complimentary in sequence to 21-nucleotide (nt) small RNA guides, called small interfering RNAs (siRNAs). Another class of 21-nt small RNAs, called micro RNAs (miRNAs), is endogenously encoded in eukaryotic genomes. Both production of siRNAs from long double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) and biogenesis of miRNAs from hairpin structures are governed by the ribonuclease III enzyme Dicer. Although produced as duplex molecules, siRNAs and miRNAs are assembled into effector complex, called the RNA-induced silencing complex (RISC), as single-strands. A member of the Argonaute family of small RNA-binding proteins lies at the core of all known RNA silencing effector complexes. Plants and animals contain multiple Argonaute paralogs. In addition to endonucleolytic cleavage, Argonaute proteins can direct translational repression/destabilization of mRNA or transcriptional silencing of DNA sequences by the siRNAdirected production of silent heterochromatin.

The Schizosaccharomyces pombe genome encodes only one of each of the three major classes of proteins implicated in RNA silencing: Dicer (Dcr1), RNA-dependent RNA polymerase (RdRP; Rdp1), and Argonaute (Ago1). These three proteins are required for silencing at centromeres and for the initiation of transcriptionally silent heterochromatin at the mating-type locus. That only one Dicer, RdRP and Argonaute is expressed in S. pombe might reflect the extreme specialization of RNA silencing pathways regulating targets only at the transcriptional level in this organism. We decided to test if classical RNAi can be induced in S. pombe. We introduced a dsRNA hairpin corresponding to a GFP transgene. GFP silencing triggered by dsRNA reflected a change in the steady-state concentration of GFP mRNA, but not in the rate of GFP transcription. RNAi in S. pombe required dcr1, rdp1, and ago1, but did not require chp1, tas3, or swi6, genes required for transcriptional silencing. We concluded that the RNAi machinery in S. pombecould direct both transcriptional and posttranscriptional silencing using a single Dicer, RdRP, and Argonaute protein. Our findings suggest that, in spite of specialization in distinct siRNA-directed silencing pathways, these three proteins fulfill a common biochemical function.

In Drosophila, miRNA and RNAi pathways are both genetically and biochemically distinct. Dicer-2 (Dcr-2) generates siRNAs, whereas the Dicer-1 (Dcr-1)/Loquacious complex produces miRNAs. Argonaute proteins can be divided by sequence similarity into two classes: in flies, the Ago subfamily includes Argonaute1 (Ago1) and Argonaute2 (Ago2), whereas the Piwi subfamily includes Aubergine, Piwi and Argonaute 3. siRNAs and miRNAs direct posttranscriptional gene silencing through effector complexes containing Ago1 or Ago2. The third class of small RNAs, called repeat-associated small interfering RNAs (rasiRNAs), is produced endogenously in the Drosophilagerm line. rasiRNAs mediate silencing of endogenous selfish genetic elements such as retrotransposons and repetitive sequences to ensure genomic stability.

We examined the genetic requirements for biogenesis of rasiRNAs in both male and female germ line of Drosophilaand silencing of 8 different selfish elements, including tree LTR retrotransposons, two non-LTR retrotransposons, and three repetitive sequences. We find that biogenesis of rasiRNAs is different from that of miRNAs and siRNAs. rasiRNA production appears not to require Dicer-1 or Dicer-2. rasiRNAs lack the 2´,3´ hydroxy termini characteristic of animal siRNA and miRNA. While siRNAs derive from both the sense and antisense strands of their dsRNA precursors, rasiRNAs accumulate in antisense polarity to their corresponding target mRNAs. Unlike siRNAs and miRNAs, rasiRNAs function through the Piwi, rather than the Ago, Argonaute protein subfamily. We find that rasiRNAs silence their target RNAs posttranscriptionally: mutations that abrogate rasiRNA function dramatically increase the steady-state mRNA level of rasiRNA targets, but do not alter their rate of transcription, measured by nuclear run-on assay.

Our data suggest that rasiRNAs protect the fly germ line through a silencing mechanism distinct from both the miRNA and RNAi pathways.



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