In the ciliate Stylonychia,
somatic macronuclei differentiate from germline micronuclei during sexual reproduction, accompanied by developmental sequence reduction. Concomitantly, over 95% of micronuclear sequences adopt a heterochromatin structure characterized by the histone variant H3.4 and H3K27me3. RNAi-related genes and histone variants dominate the list of developmentally expressed genes. Simultaneously, 27nt-ncRNAs that match sequences retained in new macronuclei are synthesized and bound by PIWI1. Recently, we proposed a mechanistic model for ‘RNA-induced DNA replication interference’ (RIRI): during polytene chromosome formation PIWI1/27nt-RNA-complexes target macronucleus-destined sequences (MDS) by base-pairing and temporarily cause locally stalled replication. At polytene chromosomal segments with ongoing replication, H3.4K27me3-nucleosomes become selectively deposited, thus dictating the prospective heterochromatin structure of these areas. Consequently, these micronucleus-specific sequences become degraded, whereas 27nt-RNA-covered sites remain protected. However, the biogenesis of the 27nt-RNAs remains unclear. It was proposed earlier that in stichotrichous ciliates 27nt-RNA precursors could derive from telomere-primed bidirectional transcription of nanochromosomes and subsequent Dicer-like (DCL) activity. As a minimalistic explanation, we propose here that the 27nt-RNA precursor could rather be mRNA or pre-mRNA and that the transition of coding RNA from parental macronuclei to non-coding RNAs, which act in premature developing macronuclei, could involve RNA-dependent RNA polymerase (RDRP) activity creating dsRNA intermediates prior to a DCL-dependent pathway. Interestingly, by such mechanism the partition of a parental somatic genome and possibly also the specific nanochromosome copy numbers could be vertically transmitted to the differentiating nuclei of the offspring.
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