The piRNA targeting rules and the resistance to piRNA silencing in endogenous genes

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Science  02 Feb 2018:
Vol. 359, Issue 6375, pp. 587-592
DOI: 10.1126/science.aao2840

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Self-defense by avoiding self-targeting

By silencing transposons, Piwi-interacting RNAs (piRNAs) protect the stability of animal genomes in germ lines. However, many piRNAs do not map to transposons, and their functions have remained undefined. Zhang et al. described the piRNA targeting logic in Caenorhabditis elegans and identified an intrinsic sequence signal in endogenous germline genes that confer resistance to piRNA silencing. Thus, diverse piRNAs silence foreign nucleic acids but spare self genes to defend the C. elegans genome. In addition, multiple foreign transgenes can be engineered to escape piRNA targeting, allowing successful expression in the germline.

Science, this issue p. 587


Piwi-interacting RNAs (piRNAs) silence transposons to safeguard genome integrity in animals. However, the functions of the many piRNAs that do not map to transposons remain unknown. Here, we show that piRNA targeting in Caenorhabditis elegans can tolerate a few mismatches but prefer perfect pairing at the seed region. The broad targeting capacity of piRNAs underlies the germline silencing of transgenes in C. elegans. Transgenes engineered to avoid piRNA recognition are stably expressed. Many endogenous germline-expressed genes also contain predicted piRNA targeting sites, and periodic An/Tn clusters (PATCs) are an intrinsic signal that provides resistance to piRNA silencing. Together, our study revealed the piRNA targeting rules and highlights a distinct strategy that C. elegans uses to distinguish endogenous from foreign nucleic acids.

  • * These authors contributed equally to this work.

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