Publication Date


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Academic Program

Interdisciplinary Graduate Program


RNA Therapeutics Institute

First Thesis Advisor

Craig C. Mello


RNA Interference, RNA, Small Interfering, Caenorhabditis elegans Proteins, DNA-Directed RNA Polymerases


The RNA interference (RNAi) pathway in Caenorhabditis elegans is a two-step, small RNA-mediated silencing pathway. Unlike in other organisms, Dicer processing of double-stranded RNA into small interfering (si) RNAs is not sufficient in worms to induce gene silencing. The activity of cellular RNA-dependent RNA polymerase (RdRP) is necessary to synthesize a secondary pool of siRNAs, which interact with a unique class of Argonaute proteins to form the functional effector complexes that mediate silencing. The aims of this thesis were to: 1) characterize the role of RdRP family members in endogenous small RNA biogenesis; 2) identify the Argonaute proteins that interact with RdRP-dependent small RNAs; and 3) investigate the biological function of RdRP-dependent small RNA pathways in C. elegans.

In this thesis, I describe genetic, deep sequencing, and molecular studies, which identify 22G-RNAs as the most abundant class of endogenous small RNA in C. elegans. The 22G-RNAs resemble RdRP-dependent secondary siRNAs produced during exogenous RNAi, in that they possess a triphosphorylated 5’ guanine residue and exhibit a remarkable strand bias at target loci. Indeed, I show that 22G-RNAs are dependent on the activity of the RdRPs RRF-1 and EGO-1 and function in multiple distinct endogenous small RNA pathways. Interestingly, I have found that RRF-1 and EGO-1 function redundantly in the germline to generate 22G-RNAs that are dependent on and interact with members of an expanded family of worm-specific Argonaute (WAGO) proteins. The WAGO/22G-RNA pathway appears to be a transcriptome surveillance pathway that silences coding genes, pseudogenes, transposons, and non-annotated, or cryptic, transcripts. In contrast, I have found that EGO-1 alone is required for the biogenesis of a distinct class of 22G-RNAs that interact with the Argonaute CSR-1. Surprisingly, the CSR-1/22G-RNA pathway does not appear to silence its targets transcripts. Instead, the CSR-1/22G-RNA pathway is essential for the proper assembly of holocentric kinetochores and chromosome segregation.

Lastly, I show that a third endogenous small RNA pathway, the ERI pathway, is a two-step silencing pathway that requires the sequential activity of distinct RdRPs and Argonautes. In the first step of this pathway, the RdRP, RRF- 3, is required for the biogenesis of 26G-RNAs that associate with the Argonaute, ERGO-1. In the second step, RRF-1 and EGO-1 generate 22G-RNAs that associate with the WAGO Argonautes.

This work demonstrates how several C. elegans small RNAs pathways utilize RdRPs to generate abundant populations of small RNAs. These distinct categories of small RNAs function together with specific Argonaute proteins to affect gene expression, to play essential roles in development, and in the maintenance of genome and transcriptome integrity.



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