One of the most exciting advances in biomedical research is the discovery of small RNA- mediated gene regulation mechanisms. Our research supported by this R01 since 2002 has contributed significantly to this advancement: In the previous funding period, we discovered and characterized the function of mammalian Piwi/Argonaute proteins that are central to small RNA mechanisms. In the beginning of the current funding period, we further discovered that Piwi proteins bind to a complex class of more than 60,000 small non-coding RNAs that we called PIWI-interacting RNAs (piRNAs). Most piRNAs are encoded by intergenic """"""""junk"""""""" DNA that is mostly heterochromatin. The discovery of piRNAs reveals a new and surprisingly complex dimension of biology, and was voted by the Science magazine as one of the ten Breakthroughs of 2006. Remarkably, Piwi proteins and piRNAs are abundantly expressed only in spermatogenic cells. We and others have shown that Piwi proteins play key roles in spermatogenesis in Drosophila, C. elegans, zebrafish, and mice. We have also shown that the overexpression of the human piwi gene (hiwi) is highly correlated to seminomas. To explore the mechanisms underlying the spermatogenic functions of Piwi proteins, we have recently demonstrated in Drosophila that Piwi proteins regulate the epigenetic state and transposon activity and in mice that MILI also binds to chromatin. Despite this exciting progress, the function of piRNAs has not been directly demonstrated in any system. The goal of this proposal is to demonstrate the function of piRNAs during spermatogenesis. Our working hypothesis is that piRNAs guide nuclear PIWI proteins to specific genomic loci for epigenetic regulation, which, in the case of transposons, lead to their silencing. To test this hypothesis and to explore the function of piRNAs, we propose to: (1) Determine the biological function of piRNA clusters during spermatogenesis. (2) Investigate the epigenetic effect of specific piRNAs to the genome. (3) Determine whether piRNAs are required for PIWI-targeting to genomic sequences. (4) Determine whether piRNAs are required for suppressing transposition.

Public Health Relevance

This proposal aims to develop a new epigenetic programming theory that can potentially transform our understanding of gene regulation. Because epigenetic programming is essential for development with broad implications in diverse types of diseases, the proposed research, if achieved, should provide a new guiding principle to medicine, from cancer prevention and treatment to the cure of degenerative diseases.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (NICHD)
Method to Extend Research in Time (MERIT) Award (R37)
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Cellular, Molecular and Integrative Reproduction Study Section (CMIR)
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Moss, Stuart B
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Yale University
Anatomy/Cell Biology
Schools of Medicine
New Haven
United States
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Watanabe, Toshiaki; Cui, Xiekui; Yuan, Zhongyu et al. (2018) MIWI2 targets RNAs transcribed from piRNA-dependent regions to drive DNA methylation in mouse prospermatogonia. EMBO J 37:
Watanabe, Toshiaki; Cheng, Ee-chun; Zhong, Mei et al. (2015) Retrotransposons and pseudogenes regulate mRNAs and lncRNAs via the piRNA pathway in the germline. Genome Res 25:368-80
Lin, Haifan; Matzuk, Martin M (2015) Poreless eggshells. J Clin Invest 125:4005-7
Ku, Hsueh-Yen; Lin, Haifan (2014) PIWI proteins and their interactors in piRNA biogenesis, germline development and gene expression. Natl Sci Rev 1:205-218
Ge, Xin Quan; Lin, Haifan (2014) Noncoding RNAs in the regulation of DNA replication. Trends Biochem Sci 39:341-3
Lin, Haifan (2014) Special Topic: Frontiers in RNA Research: The ever-expanding RNA world. Natl Sci Rev 1:182
Ross, Robert J; Weiner, Molly M; Lin, Haifan (2014) PIWI proteins and PIWI-interacting RNAs in the soma. Nature 505:353-359
Cheng, Ee-Chun; Kang, Dongwan; Wang, Zhong et al. (2014) PIWI proteins are dispensable for mouse somatic development and reprogramming of fibroblasts into pluripotent stem cells. PLoS One 9:e97821
Watanabe, Toshiaki; Lin, Haifan (2014) Posttranscriptional regulation of gene expression by Piwi proteins and piRNAs. Mol Cell 56:18-27
Peng, Jamy C; Lin, Haifan (2013) Beyond transposons: the epigenetic and somatic functions of the Piwi-piRNA mechanism. Curr Opin Cell Biol 25:190-4

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