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Open Access Research article

Retrotransposon-centered analysis of piRNA targeting shows a shift from active to passive retrotransposon transcription in developing mouse testes

Tobias Mourier

Author Affiliations

Centre for GeoGenetics, Natural History Museum, University of Copenhagen, Øster Voldgade 5-7, DK-1350 Copenhagen K, Denmark

BMC Genomics 2011, 12:440  doi:10.1186/1471-2164-12-440

Published: 1 September 2011

Abstract

Background

Piwi-associated RNAs (piRNAs) bind transcripts from retrotransposable elements (RTE) in mouse germline cells and seemingly act as guides for genomic methylation, thereby repressing the activity of RTEs. It is currently unknown if and how Piwi proteins distinguish RTE transcripts from other cellular RNAs. During germline development, the main target of piRNAs switch between different types of RTEs. Using the piRNA targeting of RTEs as an indicator of RTE activity, and considering the entire population of genomic RTE loci along with their age and location, this study aims at further elucidating the dynamics of RTE activity during mouse germline development.

Results

Due to the inherent sequence redundancy between RTE loci, assigning piRNA targeting to specific loci is problematic. This limits the analysis, although certain features of piRNA targeting of RTE loci are apparent. As expected, young RTEs display a much higher level of piRNA targeting than old RTEs. Further, irrespective of age, RTE loci near protein-coding coding genes are targeted to a greater extent than RTE loci far from genes. During development, a shift in piRNA targeting is observed, with a clear increase in the relative piRNA targeting of RTEs residing within boundaries of protein-coding gene transcripts.

Conclusions

Reanalyzing published piRNA sequences and taking into account the features of individual RTE loci provide novel insight into the activity of RTEs during development. The obtained results are consistent with some degree of proportionality between what transcripts become substrates for Piwi protein complexes and the level by which the transcripts are present in the cell. A transition from active transcription of RTEs to passive co-transcription of RTE sequences residing within protein-coding transcripts appears to take place in postnatal development. Hence, the previously reported increase in piRNA targeting of SINEs in postnatal testis development does not necessitate widespread active transcription of SINEs, but may simply be explained by the prevalence of SINEs residing in introns.