Small regulatory RNAs regulate gene expression in most eukaryotes. By regulating gene expression, small regulatory RNAs, play key roles in many biological processes that include development, genome defense, oncogenesis, and antiviral immunity. Small regulatory RNAs act by seeking out and binding homologous (target) RNAs in cells. By recruiting accessory proteins to target RNAs, small RNAs are able to control gene expression at many levels that include; translation, mRNA stability, and transcription. The mechanistic underpinnings of small RNA biology are widely conserved in most eukaryotes. In particular, small RNAs play an important role in regulating gene expression within most eukaryote nuclei. My lab has established systems that are allowing us to study how and why small RNAs regulate genes in animal nuclei. We are using the model organism C. elegans to understand how small RNAs regulate gene expression in animal nuclei. We are using C. elegans to address this question because of the excellent genetic tools that are available, and because of the robust and facile nature of conducting RNAi experiments in this system. Using genetic approaches in C. elegans, we have identified a molecular pathway that uses small RNAs to recognize and mark nascent transcripts (and the genes that encode these transcripts) for silencing. We have identified accessory proteins (termed the nuclear RNAi defective (NRDE) factors), which are recruited by small RNAs to nascent transcripts emanating from RNAP Polymerase II. Finally, we have shown that the association of the NRDE factors with RNA transcripts allows that NRDE factors to inhibit RNA Polymerase II during the elongation phase of transcription. Some of the NRDE factors that we have identified are conserved in mammals. In summary, our work is helping us understand how small RNAs regulate gene expression in animal nuclei, and may lead to insights into how small RNAs regulate gene expression in mammals. We are also interested in understanding why small RNAs regulate gene expression in animal nuclei. Small regulatory RNAs direct the covalent modification of DNA and histones proteins in most eukaryotic cells. These small RNA-mediated chromatin modifications are epigenetic in nature: they alter gene expression without changing the underlying in DNA sequence. We have shown that endogenous nuclear small RNAs, and the nuclear RNAi pathway, regulate the epigenetic landscape at ~1000 genes during the normal course of reproduction. In animals that lack the nuclear RNAi machinery, germ cells loose their immortal character. Thus, C. elegans uses endogenous small RNAs to regulate epigenetic states at many genes during the normal course of reproduction and this gene-silencing process is required to mediate important biological processes. Many other biological processes such as development, imprinting, X-chromosome inactivation, and paramutation are directed by epigenetic modifications on DNA and histones. Interestingly, non-coding RNAs also contribute to many, if not all, of these processes. Given the widespread connections that exist between small RNAs, non-coding RNAs, and epigenetic processes in eukaryotes, we believe that our research exploring how small non-coding RNAs regulate epigenetic landscapes in C. elegans may prove to be globally applicable to diverse epigenetic processes in animals. We do not yet understand 1) how the recruitment of NRDE factors to pre-mRNA inhibits RNAP II elongation to direct nuclear RNAi, 2) how RNAi-guided chromatin modifications contribute to nuclear RNAi in animals, 3) if/how nuclear RNAi is regulated, or 4) if the NRDE nuclear RNAi pathway is functionally conserved in mammals. Our proposed experiments are designed to answer these questions. .
Small regulatory RNAs are important regulators of gene expression in eukaryotes. We are using genetic approaches to investigate how small RNAs modify the epigenetic landscape and regulate gene expression in nuclei of the model organism C. elegans. We believe that insights from our research will prove to be globally applicable to our understanding of gene regulation and epigenetic inheritance in all animals, and insights from our work might make it possible to influence epigenetic processes with the goal of mitigating human disease.
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