Publication Date


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Academic Program



RNA Therapeutics Institute

First Thesis Advisor

Phillip D. Zamore, Ph.D.


RNA Interference, Drosophila melanogaster, RNA Helicases, RNA-Induced Silencing Complex, RNA, Small Interfering, Methyltransferases, MicroRNAs, DNA Transposable Elements, Drosophila Proteins, RNA Transport


Small interfering RNAs (siRNAs), microRNAs (miRNAs), and piRNAs (piRNA) are conserved classes of small single-stranded ~21-30 nucleotide (nt) RNA guides that repress eukaryotic gene expression using distinct RNA Induced Silencing Complexes (RISCs). At its core, RISC is composed of a single-stranded small RNA guide bound to a member of the Argonaute protein family, which together bind and repress complementary target RNA. miRNAs target protein coding mRNAs—a function essential for normal development and broadly involved in pathways of human disease; small interfering RNAs (siRNA) defend against viruses, but can also be engineered to direct experimental or therapeutic gene silencing; piwi associated RNAs (piRNAs) protect germline genomes from expansion of parasitic nucleic acids such as transposons. Using the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, as a model organism we seek to understand how small silencing RNAs are made and how they function.

In Drosophila, miRNAs and siRNAs are proposed to have parallel, but separate biogenesis and effector machinery. miRNA duplexes are excised from imperfectly paired hairpin precursors by Dicer1 and loaded into Ago1; siRNA duplexes are hewn from perfectly paired long dsRNA by Dicer2 and loaded into Ago2. Contrary to this model we found one miRNA, miR-277, is made by Dicer1, but partitions between Ago1 and Ago2 RISCs. These two RISCs are functionally distinct—Ago2 could silence a perfectly paired target, but not a centrally bulged target; Ago1 could silence a bulged target, but not a perfect target. This was surprising since both Ago1 and Ago2 have endonucleolytic cleavage activity necessary for perfect target cleavage in vitro. Our detailed kinetic studies suggested why—Ago2 is a robust multiple turnover enzyme, but Ago1 is not. Along with a complementary in vitro study our data supports a duplex sorting mechanism in which Diced duplexes are released, and rebind to Ago1 or Ago2 loading machinery, regardless of which Dicer produced them. This allows structural information embedded in small RNA duplexes to direct small RNA loading into Ago1 and/or Ago2, resulting in distinct regulatory outputs.

Small RNA sorting also has chemical consequences for the small RNA guide. Although siRNAs were presumed to have the signature 2′, 3′ hydroxyl ends left by Dicer, we found that small RNAs loaded into Ago2 or Piwi proteins, but not Ago1, are modified at their 3´ ends by the RNA 2´-O-methyltransferase DmHen1. In plants Hen1 modifies the 3´ ends all small RNAs duplexs, protecting and stabilizing them. Implying a similar function in flies, piRNAs are smaller, less abundant, and their function is perturbed in hen1 mutants. But unlike plants, small RNAs are modified as single-strands in RISC rather than as duplexes. This nicely explains why the dsRNA binding domain in plant Hen1 was discarded in animals, and why both dsRNA derived siRNAs and ssRNA derived piRNAs are modified. The recent discovery that both piRNAs and siRNAs target transposons links terminal modification and transposon silencing, suggesting that it is specialized for this purpose.



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