miRNA-Mediated Gene Silencing by Translational Repression Followed by mRNA Deadenylation and Decay

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Science  13 Apr 2012:
Vol. 336, Issue 6078, pp. 237-240
DOI: 10.1126/science.1215691

Translation Block

MicroRNAs (miRNAs) are small, noncoding RNA genes that are found in the genomes of most eukaryotes, where they play an important role in the regulation of gene expression. Although whether gene activity is repressed by blocking translation of messenger RNA (mRNA) targets, or by promoting their deadenylation and then degradation, has been open to debate. Bazzini et al. (p. 233, published online 15 March) and Djuranovic et al. (p. 237) looked at early points in the repression reaction in the zebrafish embryo or in Drosophila tissue culture cells, respectively, and found that translation was blocked before target mRNAs were significantly deadenylated and degraded. Thus, miRNAs appear to interfere with the initiation step of translation.


microRNAs (miRNAs) regulate gene expression through translational repression and/or messenger RNA (mRNA) deadenylation and decay. Because translation, deadenylation, and decay are closely linked processes, it is important to establish their ordering and thus to define the molecular mechanism of silencing. We have investigated the kinetics of these events in miRNA-mediated gene silencing by using a Drosophila S2 cell-based controllable expression system and show that mRNAs with both natural and engineered 3′ untranslated regions with miRNA target sites are first subject to translational inhibition, followed by effects on deadenylation and decay. We next used a natural translational elongation stall to show that miRNA-mediated silencing inhibits translation at an early step, potentially translation initiation.

microRNAs (miRNAs) are short endogenous RNAs that regulate protein expression from targeted genes by pairing to sites in the 3′ untranslated region (3′UTR) (1). Although some studies showed a strong correlation between the diminution of protein and mRNA levels of miRNA-targeted genes (26), other studies showed that miRNAs principally affect protein expression of miRNA-targeted genes without obvious effects on mRNA abundance (710). By simultaneously measuring translational efficiencies (thus indirectly levels of protein synthesis) and mRNA abundance, global analyses have shown evidence of significant mRNA destabilization and translational repression (11, 12). Because only slightly more translational repression is observed than mRNA destabilization, it is possible that most of the loss in protein synthesis could directly result from effects on mRNA stability. Most of these studies have not, however, evaluated the kinetics of the miRNA-related cellular processes (5, 10, 13, 14). Exceptions include several analyses of in vitro systems that concluded that the effects of miRNAs on translational repression precede effects on mRNA target deadenylation or decay (1517), but concerns remain that the in vitro reactions may not fully recapitulate the in vivo situation.

We used an in vivo luciferase-based reporter system in Drosophila melanogaster S2 cells under the control of an inducible metallothionein promoter (Mtn) (18). The reporter constructs consist of one of the luciferase reporter genes [Firefly (F-Luc) or Renilla (R-Luc)] fused at its 5′ end to the Mtn promoter and at its 3′ end to synthetic or natural 3′UTRs that contain miRNA binding sites responsive to either endogenously expressed (bantam and miR-279) or ectopically introduced miRNAs (miR-9b) (fig. S1); control constructs not subject to miRNA-mediated gene regulation are detailed in fig. S1. We first asked whether miRNA-mediated responsiveness is limited by endogenous components of the microRNA-induced silencing complex (miRISC) (Argonaute protein or miRNAs). By using a previously characterized bantam-responsive synthetic construct and ectopically expressed additional miRISC components (bantam and Ago1), we followed repression levels of the target mRNAs 24 hours after induction (Fig. 1A) (19). The results indicate that Ago1 is not limiting for repression in Drosophila S2 cells, whereas bantam is limiting because greater repression was observed when it was overexpressed (Fig. 1A). In the remaining experiments, we expressed additional amounts of endogenously present miRNAs (bantam and miR-279) from plasmids under the constitutive actin promoter.

Fig. 1

Steady state evaluation of miRNA-mediated gene silencing using a copper-inducible in vivo reporter system. (A) Measured protein amounts (luminescence) from transfected nontargeted (NT), targeted (T), and control (con) constructs 24 hours after induction. Additional expression of bantam miRNA, not Argonaute 1, results in increased repression for synthetic bantam targeted constructs (fig. S1). (B to E) Ratios of steady-state protein amounts for synthetic and natural miRNA-targeted constructs 48 hours after induction. In each case, mean values ± SD from three independent triplicate experiments are shown as a normalized ratio of protein amounts (NT/T).

We next used a set of synthetic and natural 3′UTRs with miRNA binding sites responding to either bantam or miR-9b and miR-279 and their corresponding controls (fig. S1 and tables S1 and S2). We chose natural (endogenous) 3′UTRs from hid and Vha68-1 and a pair of synthetic 3′UTR targets that contain six natural tandem sites for either bantam or miR-9b and miR-279 miRNAs (19, 20). After transfection and constitutive induction, luciferase expression levels were measured after 48 hours and normalized to assess the end-point effects of miRNA-mediated repression (Fig. 1, B to E). The synthetic bantam 3′UTR exhibited repression levels up to 80-fold when compared with the control (Fig. 1B); the reporter containing the 3′UTR of the hid gene with as many as eight miRNA binding sites exhibited ~ninefold repression (Fig. 1D) (19). Additionally, both synthetic and natural (20) 3′UTRs responding to ectopically expressed miR-9b and miR-279 exhibited strong repression 48 hours after induction (Fig. 1, C and E). The addition of antagomirs to the cell cultures induced levels of derepression for the reporter constructs similar to those observed when comparing reporter protein expression from constructs with intact and altered miRNA binding sites (fig. S2).

For regulated induction, transcriptional shut-off of the Mtn promoter was accomplished by using a specific copper chelator, bathocuproine disulphonate (BCS). Although BCS chelates any residual copper in the S2 cell medium, it does not penetrate the cell membrane and thus does not affect normal cellular homeostasis (21). A 90-min pulse induction by copper (II) sulfate induced expression of the various reporter constructs to levels that could be monitored over the subsequent 48 hours. By using this optimized pulse-induction protocol (fig. S3), we determined how our reporter pairs with synthetic and natural 3′UTRs respond to miRNAs during an extended period of time. Normalized levels of luciferase luminescence for both miRNA-targeted and nontargeted constructs were used to assess miRNA-mediated gene silencing at the protein level. mRNA levels for reporter and control genes were determined by using quantitative reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (qRT-PCR) from RNA samples isolated with oligo(dT)25 resin, as well as from total RNA. Both values were normalized with respect to the parallel transfected control genes and were used to calculate repression ratios between miRNA-targeted and nontargeted constructs (Fig. 2). We emphasize that there is substantial mRNA degradation (for all reporters) during the experiment (fig. S4), but here we are interested in the relative amount of decay of the targeted and nontargeted mRNAs. The results of the pulse-induction experiments were consistent and show that the repressive effects of miRNAs on synthesis of all four proteins precede any effects on mRNA deadenylation or decay (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2

Time-resolved progression of miRNA-mediated gene silencing establishes that repression of protein synthesis precedes mRNA deadenylation and decay. (A to D) Normalized levels of protein amounts for both miRNA-targeted (T) and nontargeted (NT) constructs; normalized mRNA levels for reporter genes from oligo(dT)25 resin precipitation or from total RNA presented as ratios of poly(A) and total mRNA, respectively. Each data point represents the mean value ± SD calculated from three independent experiments.

These four examples include effects on protein and mRNA levels that are both well correlated and poorly correlated (5, 1012, 19, 20). For reporters with natural 3′ UTRs, the repression effects on protein and mRNA levels are correlated at later (but not early) time points (Fig. 2, C and D), consistent with global studies on miRNA-mediated silencing (11, 12). For reporters with synthetic 3′UTRs, the repression effects on protein and mRNA levels are uncorrelated at both early and late time points (Fig. 2, A and B) (5, 10, 19, 20). The differences in overall stability of the mRNAs likely reflect the complexity of RNA degradation as specified by various 3′UTR-located sequence motifs. In all experiments here, repression of protein synthesis is consistently seen just 2 hours after induction, whereas mRNA destabilization comes later. Additionally, in experiments where less bantam miRNA was present (by not supplying an exogenous source), the observed timing of protein repression and mRNA deadenylation and decay were unaffected (fig. S5, A and B).

We performed a similar set of experiments with use of actinomycin D to more rapidly shut off transcription (fig. S6, A to D). At a single time point after induction, all constructs showed a substantial reduction in protein production but no reduction in mRNA abundance (Fig. 2). Consistent with BCS shut-off data, translation rates for targeted constructs are substantially reduced with respect to nontargeted ones (fig. S6, A to D).

mRNA polyadenylate [poly(A)] tails are involved in translation initiation and thus in determining translational efficiency (22, 23). Potential subtle changes in poly(A) tail length not detectable using an oligo(dT)25 isolation procedure were analyzed for the complete set of RNA samples by using a poly(A) tail-length assay that allows for specific amplification of poly(A)-containing mRNAs. Subtle changes in poly(A) tail length could be documented with this assay when cells were treated with puromycin (fig. S7) (24). However, we did not observe any shortening of poly(A) tails in reporter constructs responding to bantam or mir-9b and mir-279 (Fig. 3, A to D). Because no intermediates are observed, these data suggest that deadenylation in vivo is processive and closely coupled to mRNA decay. These data argue that translational inhibition is not triggered by deadenylation, either partial or complete, in the system that we have established [in contrast with earlier studies (6, 12, 25)].

Fig. 3

mRNA deadenylation is not required for miRNA-mediated translational repression. (A to D) Length of poly(A) tail was determined by using G/I tailing PCR-based amplification (materials and methods). Positions of overamplified products with or without (C) poly(A) tail are indicated. Glyceraldehyde-3-phosphate dehydrogenase (GAPDH) mRNA poly(A) tail length is shown as a control. M lane represents 100–base pair markers. (E) Time-resolved progression of miRNA-mediated gene silencing for histone H3 constructs. Normalized levels of protein and mRNA amounts for miRNA-targeted (T) and nontargeted (NT) constructs are shown. Each data point represents an average value ± SD from three independent experiments.

We also evaluated the timing and extent of silencing of reporter gene pairs carrying histone H3 terminal stem loops [and no poly(A) tail] (26) (fig. S8). This reporter pair is translationally repressed rapidly (Fig. 3E) and at levels comparable to those observed with equivalent constructs carrying a poly(A) tail (Fig. 2A versus Fig. 3E). These data provide further support for the idea that deadenylation is not required for translational repression by miRNAs (5). However, deadenylases may play a direct role in translational repression independent of their deadenylation activity (2729), and deadenylation may consolidate the observed translational repression.

To define where in the translation cycle the miRNA-mediated stalling occurs, we developed an approach that uses as a read-out the specific cleavage of mRNAs when ribosomes stall during translation elongation (30) (fig. S9). We inserted 12 lysine codons at position 6 in both the natural and synthetic reporters; as a control, we inserted 12 arginines and 12 more neutral glutamine residues (fig. S10). By using qRT primers that encompassed the predicted cleavage site as well as the stall sequence, we determined the extent of cleavage of both targeted and nontargeted reporter mRNAs over time (Fig. 4, A to D, and fig. S11, A to C). Ratios of the targeted and nontargeted proteins and mRNAs were normalized to the amount of a parallel control reporter. In all cases, mRNAs of nontargeted reporters were rapidly cleaved and degraded, whereas mRNAs of the targeted reporters were relatively stabilized. Similar results were obtained in a stalling experiment with histone H3 constructs, confirming that the poly(A) tail is not essential for miRNA-mediated translational repression (Fig. 4E). These data establish that miRNA-mediated translational silencing happens in the Drosophila system during the initiation or early elongation phase of protein synthesis.

Fig. 4

Translational elongation stalling assay indicates that miRNA-mediated gene silencing targets early steps in translation. (A to E) Time-resolved progression of miRNA-mediated effects on the stability of various mRNA constructs containing the lysine-induced elongation stall. Normalized mRNA amounts for the miRNA-targeted (T) and nontargeted (NT) constructs are shown as the ratio of NT/T; note that values are less than one and decreasing. Each data point represents an average ± SD from three independent experiments.

We find that miRNA-mediated gene silencing in Drosophila S2 cells is first manifested through effects on translation, and in particular the early events thereof, and is subsequently consolidated by mRNA deadenylation and decay. Although it is possible that the order of events is different in other systems or in a fashion that is mRNA-specific, our data in Drosophila are consistent. Moreover, these observations are consistent with earlier studies on miRNA-mediated silencing in vitro (15, 17) and with previous studies of translation as affected by iron levels (24). With these insights into the relative timing of the events involved in miRNA-mediated gene silencing, we can now focus subsequent molecular mechanistic analysis on these earliest triggering steps.

Supplementary Materials

Materials and Methods

Figs. S1 to S11

Tables S1 to S4


References and Notes

  1. Acknowledgments: We thank K. Wehner, J. Doudna, M. Jinek, N. Guydosh, and J. Coller for helpful comments. Funding is from HHMI.
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