Publication Date


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Academic Program

Interdisciplinary Graduate Program


Program in Molecular Medicine

First Thesis Advisor

William Theurkauf, Ph.D.


RNA, Small Interfering, Drosophila melanogaster, Genome, Insect, Telomere, DNA Transposable Elements


Upon fertilization, the early embryo sustains most of the cellular processes using the maternally deposited reserves in the egg itself until the zygotic gene expression takes charge. Among the plethora of essential components provided by the mother are small non-coding RNAs called PIWI-interacting RNAs (piRNAs), which provide immunity to the zygote against transposon challenge. In this thesis, I have presented three different functions of piRNAs in Drosophila melanogaster- in maintenance of genomic integrity, telomere protection and their role as an adaptive immune system against genomic parasites.

In Chapter 2, I have described the phenotypic effects of the loss of piRNA function in early embryos. The mutations affecting the piRNA pathway are known to cause embryonic lethality. To describe this lethality in detail, I have shown that all the characterized piRNA mutants show compromised zygotic genomic integrity during early embryogenesis. In addition, two piRNA pathway components, Aubergine (Aub) and Armitage (Armi) are also required for telomere resolution during early embryogenesis. Aub and Armi recruit telomeric protection complex proteins, HOAP and HP1, to the telomeric ends and thus avoid activation of the Non-homologous end joining (NHEJ) DNA repair pathway at the telomeres.

There are about 120 transposon families in Drosophila melanogaster and piRNA pathway mutations cause activation of many of the resident transposons in the genome. In Chapter 3, I have described the effects of infection by a single transposon, P-element, in naïve strains by introduction through the zygote. Activation of the P-element leads to desilencing of unrelated transposons, causing accumulation of germline DNA damage which is linked to severely reduced fertility in the hybrid females. However, there is partial restoration of fertility as the hybrid progeny age, which correlates with P-element piRNA production and thus P-element silencing.

Additionally, a number of transposons mobilize into piRNA generating heterochromatic clusters in the genome, and these insertions are stably inherited in the progeny. Collectively our data shows that piRNA production can be triggered in the adults in an absence of maternal contribution and that piRNAs serve as an adaptive immune system which helps resolve an internal genetic conflict between the host and the parasite.

In an effort to understand the phenotypic effects of piRNA dysfunction in Drosophila, we have uncovered new exciting roles for piRNAs in development and presented evidence how transposons can act as architects in restructuring the host genome.



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