Small RNA Duplexes Function as Mobile Silencing Signals Between Plant Cells

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Science  14 May 2010:
Vol. 328, Issue 5980, pp. 912-916
DOI: 10.1126/science.1185880

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siRNA Movement in Plant Tissues

Long-distance movement of RNA interference (RNAi)–derived signals in plants plays an important role in development and in defense against viral attack. The nature of the signals that spread from cell to cell is not known, although evidence suggests that they are nucleic acids of some sort (see the Perspective by Martienssen). Molnar et al. (p. 872, published online 22 April) and Dunoyer et al. (p. 912, published online 22 April) now show that in Arabidopsis, both exogenous and endogenous small interfering RNAs (siRNAs), rather than their long double-stranded precursor RNAs, are the molecules that transfer information between plant cells. A viral protein that counters RNAi though sequestering siRNAs blocked spreading of a transgene RNAi silencing signal. Furthermore, siRNA-processing enzymes were required in the source, and not the recipient, cells for spreading, and bombardment of plants with double-stranded siRNAs directly showed siRNA spread between cells. Endogenous siRNAs also spread between tissues and were capable of directing DNA methylation of target sequences in distant tissues.


In the plant RNA interference (RNAi) pathway, 21-nucleotide duplexes of small interfering RNA (siRNA) are processed from longer double-stranded RNA precursors by the RNaseIII Dicer-like 4 (DCL4). Single-stranded siRNAs then guide Argonaute 1 (AGO1) to execute posttranscriptional silencing of complementary target RNAs. RNAi is not cell-autonomous in higher plants, but the nature of the mobile nucleic acid(s) signal remains unknown. Using cell-specific rescue of DCL4 function and cell-specific inhibition of RNAi movement, we genetically establish that exogenous and endogenous siRNAs, as opposed to their precursor molecules, act as mobile silencing signals between plant cells. We further demonstrate physical movement of mechanically delivered, labeled siRNA duplexes that functionally recapitulate transgenic RNAi spread. Cell-to-cell movement is unlikely to involve AGO1-bound siRNA single strands, but instead likely involves siRNA duplexes.

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