, Volume 35, Issue 6, pp 545-553

RNA interference: The molecular immune system

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Abstract

Introduction of double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) into cells expressing a homologous gene triggers RNA interference (RNAi), or RNA-based gene silencing (RBGS). The dsRNA degrades corresponding host mRNA into small interfering RNAs (siRNAs) by a protein complex containing Dicer. siRNAs in turn are incorporated into the RNA-induced silencing complex (RISC) that includes helicase, RecA, and exo- and endo-nucleases as well as other proteins. Following its assembly, the RISC guides the RNA degradation machinery to the target RNAs and cleaves the cognate target RNA in a sequence-specific, siRNA-dependent manner. RNAi has now been documented in a wide variety of organisms, including plants, fungi, flies, worms, and more recently, higher mammals. In eukaryotes, dsRNA directed against a range of viruses (i.e., HIV-1, RSV, HPV, poliovirus and others) and endogenous genes can induce sequence-specific inhibition of gene expression. In invertebrates, RNAi can be efficiently triggered by either long dsRNAs or 21- to 23-nt-long siRNAs. However, in jawed vertebrates, dsRNA longer than 30 bp can induce interferon and thus trigger undesirable side effects instead of initiating RNAi. siRNAs have been shown to act as potent inducers of RNAi in cultured mammalian cells. Many investigators have suggested that siRNAs may have evolved as a normal defense against endogenous and exogenous transposons and retroelements. Through a combination of genetic and biochemical approaches, some of the mechanisms underlying RNAi have been described. Recent data in C. elegans shows that two homologs of siRNAs, microRNAs (miRNAs) and tiny noncoding RNAs (tncRNAs) are endogenously expressed. However, many aspects of RNAi-induced gene silencing, including its origins and the selective pressures which maintain it, remain undefined. Its evolutionary history may pass through the more primitive immune functions of prokaryotes involving restriction enzymes that degrade plasmid DNA molecules that enter bacterial cells. RNAi has evolved further among eukaryotes, in which its wide distribution suggests early origins. RNAi seems to be involved in a variety of regulatory and immune functions that may differ among various kingdoms and phyla. We present here proposed mechanisms by which RBGS protects the host against endogenous and exogenous transposons and retroelements. The potential for therapeutic application of RBGS technology in treating viral infections such as HIV is also discussed.