Scientists develop new RNAi knockdown technology

Scientists from the RIKEN Tsukuba Institute (Japan) have developed a valuable new experimental system for tissue-specific RNAi knockdown in mammalian cells and organisms – a discovery that will markedly advance the functional characterization of genes involved in development and disease.

Discovered in the late nineties, RNA intereference (RNAi) refers to the introduction of double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) into a cell, where it induces the degradation of complementary mRNA, and thereby suppresses gene expression. RNAi has proven to be a powerful tool in the elucidation of gene function in organisms ranging from worms, to plants and fruit flies.

However, the use of RNAi in mammals has been complicated by the antiviral response of mammalian cells to dsRNA. The presence of foreign dsRNA in a mammalian cell initiates the so-called “interferon response:” the non-specific degradation of mRNA, and ensuing death of the cell. Mammalian RNAi researchers have undertaken a few different routes to avoid eliciting the interferon response, and while some have been successful, none have been able to accomplish it in a tissue-specific manner. Until now.

As published in the June 1 issue of Genes & Development, Dr. Shunsuke Ishii and colleagues have constructed a new RNAi vector (a vehicle to introduce foreign RNA into a cell), which both side steps the interferon response and allows for the tissue-specific suppression of gene expression. This vector, called pDECAP, represents a dramatic improvement over current RNAi transgenic technology.

As Dr. Ishii explains, “In the RNAi transgenic systems developed so far, small hairpin-type RNA is expressed from the RNA polymerase III promoter or the virus promoter. However, these systems cannot be utilized to knockdown gene function in a tissue-specific manner, because these promoters are active in all types of cells. In our system, the RNA polymerase II promoter is utilized to express hairpin-type double-strand RNA (dsRNA). Therefore, our system can be used to generate the tissue-specific knockdown mice.”

The pDECAP vector expresses dsRNA from an RNA polymerase II promoter, which can be actived in specific cell types. Therefore, Dr. Ishii and colleagues can pick and choose which tissues that they want to knockdown gene function in. To avoid the interferon response, Dr. Ishii and colleagues engineered the vector to transcribe dsRNA that lacks the sequences needed to export it from the nucleus into the cytosol. Instead, pDECAP-expressed dsRNA is sequestered in the nucleus, where it is processed into small interfering RNAs (siRNAs). These siRNAs are then released into the cytosol, where they direct the degradation of target mRNA without eliciting the interferon response.

Dr. Ishii and colleagues used the pDECAP system to suppress expression of the Ski oncogene in mice. These Ski-knockdown mice largely recapitulate the mutant phenotype of traditional Ski-knockout mice (in which the Ski gene has been deleted through homologous recombination of embryonic stem cells), suggesting that Dr. Ishii’s new system provides an efficient alternative to traditional mouse knockouts in the exploration of gene function.

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