The long-term goal of this project is to discover gene regulatory mechanisms that control differentiation of male gametes, critical for understanding the genetic and molecular basis of male infertility. We have identified a novel mechanism of regulation of gene product expression that may play a key role in the switch from spermatogonial proliferation to spermatocyte growth, meiosis and terminal differentiation. In a pilot study mapping 3'ends of transcripts by high throughput RNA-3'end-Sequencing from staged testis samples, we discovered many mRNAs expressed with long 3'UTRs in spermatogonia but short 3'UTRs due to selection of alternative polyadenlyation (APA) sites in spermatocytes and differentiating Drosophila male germ cells. Similar shortening of 3'UTRs occurs in mammalian spermatogenesis, indicating a deeply conserved regulatory mechanism. Because 3'UTRs can house important information for translational repression, stage-specific alternative 3'end selection may provide a novel mechanism to coordinately regulate cohorts of proteins for the next stage of male germ cell differentiation. In this R21, we propose to investigate the extent and role in control of stage-specific protein expression of 3'UTR shortening by APA during male germ cell differentiation, taking advantage of powerful genetic tools available in Drosophila. Our innovative strategy combines three approaches. We will use directed in vivo reporter assays to test the hypothesis that sequences in the extended 3'UTR of specific transcripts repress translation in spermatogonia, but are removed by APA to allow translation in spermatocytes, starting with the example of LolaF protein, which is not translated in spermatogonia but appears abruptly in early spermatocytes. In parallel we will use high throughput RNA-3'end- Seq to identify genome wide the transcripts subject to 3'UTR shortening as spermatogonia differentiate and identify shared sequence motifs that may suggest coordinate regulatory mechanisms. We will test the role of such cis-acting motifs in vivo using reporter constructs as above and investigate the role of trans-acting factors predicted to bind them by knocking down expression of candidate regulators using germ cell stage-specific RNAi or anti-miRNA sponges. Third, we will employ a novel method we developed to induce spermatogonia to differentiate in synchrony to determine if 3'UTR shortening by APA occurs at one discrete time in male germ cell differentiation or if different mRNAs are subject to APA at different steps. The approaches we propose are technically feasible, and if successful, our study may reveal a novel switch mechanism where germ cell differentiation is primed by expression of transcripts that are kept silent in spermatogonia by translational repression, until developmentally regulated cell type specific 3'UTR shortening relieves the repression, allowing abrupt and rapid onset of expression of proteins that may then drive subsequent stages of male germ cell differentiation. Our results will provide paradigms to investigate in spermatogenesis in mammals and may uncover new target mechanisms for male contraceptive strategies.
The results of the proposed studies will reveal how a novel mode of gene regulation, developmentally controlled shortening of the 3'tails of transcripts, regulates expression of sets of proteins at specific stages of germ cell differentiation during spermatogenesis. The mechanisms we discover will provide new understanding of molecular and genetic defects underlying male infertility and may provide new targets for male contraceptives. In addition, since stage-specific alternative 3'end selection is also a feature of transcripts in other adult stem cell lineages, differentiation of embryonic stem cells, and cancer, our results will reveal underlying mechanisms likely to be important in embryonic development, tissue repair and disease.