RNA-binding proteins (RBPs) play pivotal roles in multiple cellular pathways from transcription to RNA turnover by interacting with RNA sequence and/or structural elements to form distinct RNA-protein complexes. Since these complexes are required for the normal regulation of gene expression, mutations that alter RBP functions may result in a cascade of deleterious events that lead to severe disease. Here, we focus on a group of hereditary disorders, the microsatellite expansion diseases, which alter RBP activities and result in abnormal neurological and neuromuscular phenotypes. While many of these diseases are classified as adult-onset disorders, mounting evidence indicates that disruption of normal RNA-protein interaction networks during embryogenesis modifies developmental pathways, which ultimately leads to disease manifestations later in life. Efforts to understand the molecular basis of these disorders has already uncovered novel pathogenic mechanisms, including RNA toxicity and repeat-associated non-ATG (RAN) translation, and current studies suggest that additional surprising insights into cellular regulatory pathways will emerge in the future.
Inhibition of muscleblind-like (MBNL) activity due to sequestration by microsatellite expansion RNAs is a major pathogenic event in the RNA-mediated disease myotonic dystrophy (DM). Although MBNL1 and MBNL2 bind to nascent transcripts to regulate alternative splicing during muscle and brain development, another major binding site for the MBNL protein family is the 3' untranslated region of target RNAs. Here, we report that depletion of Mbnl proteins in mouse embryo fibroblasts leads to misregulation of thousands of alternative polyadenylation events. HITS-CLIP and minigene reporter analyses indicate that these polyadenylation switches are a direct consequence of MBNL binding to target RNAs. Misregulated alternative polyadenylation also occurs in skeletal muscle in a mouse polyCUG model and human DM, resulting in the persistence of neonatal polyadenylation patterns. These findings reveal an additional developmental function for MBNL proteins and demonstrate that DM is characterized by misregulation of pre-mRNA processing at multiple levels.
A novel RNA-mediated disease mechanism has emerged from studies on dominantly inherited neurological disorders caused by unstable microsatellite expansions in non-coding regions of the genome. These non-coding tandem repeat expansions trigger the production of unusual RNAs that gain a toxic function, which involves the formation of RNA repeat structures that interact with, and alter the activities of, various factors required for normal RNA processing as well as additional cellular functions. In this review, we explore the deleterious effects of toxic RNA expression and discuss the various model systems currently available for studying RNA gain-of-function in neurologic diseases. Common themes, including bidirectional transcription and repeat-associated non-ATG (RAN) translation, have recently emerged from expansion disease studies. These and other discoveries have highlighted the need for further investigations designed to provide the additional mechanistic insights essential for future therapeutic development.
Myotonic dystrophy (DM) is a multi-systemic disease that impacts cardiac and skeletal muscle as well as the central nervous system (CNS). DM is unusual because it is an RNA-mediated disorder due to the expression of toxic microsatellite expansion RNAs that alter the activities of RNA processing factors, including the muscleblind-like (MBNL) proteins. While these mutant RNAs inhibit MBNL1 splicing activity in heart and skeletal muscles, Mbnl1 knockout mice fail to recapitulate the full-range of DM symptoms in these tissues. Here, we generate mouse Mbnl compound knockouts to test the hypothesis that Mbnl2 functionally compensates for Mbnl1 loss. Although Mbnl1(-/-) ; Mbnl2(-/-) double knockouts (DKOs) are embryonic lethal, Mbnl1(-/-) ; Mbnl2(+/-) mice are viable but develop cardinal features of DM muscle disease including reduced lifespan, heart conduction block, severe myotonia and progressive skeletal muscle weakness. Mbnl2 protein levels are elevated in Mbnl1(-/-) knockouts where Mbnl2 targets Mbnl1-regulated exons. These findings support the hypothesis that compound loss of MBNL function is a critical event in DM pathogenesis and provide novel mouse models to investigate additional pathways disrupted in this RNA-mediated disease.
Sequence-specific interactions of RNA-binding proteins (RBPs) with their target transcripts are essential for post-transcriptional gene expression regulation in mammals. However, accurate prediction of RBP motif sites has been difficult because many RBPs recognize short and degenerate sequences. Here we describe a hidden Markov model (HMM)-based algorithm mCarts to predict clustered functional RBP-binding sites by effectively integrating the number and spacing of individual motif sites, their accessibility in local RNA secondary structures and cross-species conservation. This algorithm learns and quantifies rules of these features, taking advantage of a large number of in vivo RBP-binding sites obtained from cross-linking and immunoprecipitation data. We applied this algorithm to study two representative RBP families, Nova and Mbnl, which regulate tissue-specific alternative splicing through interacting with clustered YCAY and YGCY elements, respectively, and predicted their binding sites in the mouse transcriptome. Despite the low information content in individual motif elements, our algorithm made specific predictions for successful experimental validation. Analysis of predicted sites also revealed cases of extensive and distal RBP-binding sites important for splicing regulation. This algorithm can be readily applied to other RBPs to infer their RNA-regulatory networks. The software is freely available at http://zhanglab.c2b2.columbia.edu/index.php/MCarts.
The muscleblind-like (MBNL) genes encode alternative splicing factors that are essential for the postnatal development of multiple tissues, and the inhibition of MBNL activity by toxic C(C)UG repeat RNAs is a major pathogenic feature of the neuromuscular disease myotonic dystrophy. While MBNL1 controls fetal-to-adult splicing transitions in muscle and MBNL2 serves a similar role in the brain, the function of MBNL3 in vivo is unknown. Here, we report that mouse Mbnl3, which encodes protein isoforms that differ in the number of tandem zinc-finger RNA-binding motifs and subcellular localization, is expressed primarily during embryonic development but also transiently during injury-induced adult skeletal muscle regeneration. Mbnl3 expression is required for normal C2C12 myogenic differentiation and high-throughput sequencing combined with cross-linking/immunoprecipitation analysis indicates that Mbnl3 binds preferentially to the 3 untranslated regions of genes implicated in cell growth and proliferation. In addition, Mbnl3?E2 isoform knockout mice, which fail to express the major Mbnl3 nuclear isoform, show age-dependent delays in injury-induced muscle regeneration and impaired muscle function. These results suggest that Mbnl3 inhibition by toxic RNA expression may be a contributing factor to the progressive skeletal muscle weakness and wasting characteristic of myotonic dystrophy.
Dystrophia myotonica type 1 (DM1) is an autosomal dominant multisystem disorder. The pathogenesis of central nervous system (CNS) involvement is poorly understood. Disease-specific induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) lines would provide an alternative model. In this study, we generated two DM1 lines and a normal iPSC line from dermal fibroblasts by retroviral transduction of Yamanakas four factors (hOct4, hSox2, hKlf4, and hc-Myc). Both DM1 and control iPSC clones showed typical human embryonic stem cell (hESC) growth patterns with a high nuclear-to-cytoplasm ratio. The iPSC colonies maintained the same growth pattern through subsequent passages. All iPSC lines expressed stem cell markers and differentiated into cells derived from three embryonic germ layers. All iPSC lines underwent normal neural differentiation. Intranuclear RNA foci, a hallmark of DM1, were detected in DM1 iPSCs, neural stem cells (NSCs), and terminally differentiated neurons and astrocytes. In conclusion, we have successfully established disease-specific human DM1 iPSC lines, NSCs, and neuronal lineages with pathognomonic intranuclear RNA foci, which offer an unlimited cell resource for CNS mechanistic studies and a translational platform for therapeutic development.
Myotonic dystrophy type 1 is a complex multisystemic inherited disorder, which displays multiple debilitating neurological manifestations. Despite recent progress in the understanding of the molecular pathogenesis of myotonic dystrophy type 1 in skeletal muscle and heart, the pathways affected in the central nervous system are largely unknown. To address this question, we studied the only transgenic mouse line expressing CTG trinucleotide repeats in the central nervous system. These mice recreate molecular features of RNA toxicity, such as RNA foci accumulation and missplicing. They exhibit relevant behavioural and cognitive phenotypes, deficits in short-term synaptic plasticity, as well as changes in neurochemical levels. In the search for disease intermediates affected by disease mutation, a global proteomics approach revealed RAB3A upregulation and synapsin I hyperphosphorylation in the central nervous system of transgenic mice, transfected cells and post-mortem brains of patients with myotonic dystrophy type 1. These protein defects were associated with electrophysiological and behavioural deficits in mice and altered spontaneous neurosecretion in cell culture. Taking advantage of a relevant transgenic mouse of a complex human disease, we found a novel connection between physiological phenotypes and synaptic protein dysregulation, indicative of synaptic dysfunction in myotonic dystrophy type 1 brain pathology.
Pre-mRNA processing, including 5-end capping, splicing, editing, and polyadenylation, consists of a series of orchestrated and primarily cotranscriptional steps that ensure both the high fidelity and extreme diversity characteristic of eukaryotic gene expression. Alternative splicing and editing allow relatively small genomes to encode vast proteomic arrays while alternative 3-end formation enables variations in mRNA localization, translation, and stability. Of course, this mechanistic complexity comes at a high price. Mutations in the myriad of RNA sequence elements that regulate mRNA biogenesis, as well as the trans-acting factors that act upon these sequences, underlie a number of human diseases. In this review, we focus on one of these key RNA processing steps, splicing, to highlight recent studies that describe both conventional and novel pathogenic mechanisms that underlie muscle and neurological diseases.
Trinucleotide expansions cause disease by both protein- and RNA-mediated mechanisms. Unexpectedly, we discovered that CAG expansion constructs express homopolymeric polyglutamine, polyalanine, and polyserine proteins in the absence of an ATG start codon. This repeat-associated non-ATG translation (RAN translation) occurs across long, hairpin-forming repeats in transfected cells or when expansion constructs are integrated into the genome in lentiviral-transduced cells and brains. Additionally, we show that RAN translation across human spinocerebellar ataxia type 8 (SCA8) and myotonic dystrophy type 1 (DM1) CAG expansion transcripts results in the accumulation of SCA8 polyalanine and DM1 polyglutamine expansion proteins in previously established SCA8 and DM1 mouse models and human tissue. These results have implications for understanding fundamental mechanisms of gene expression. Moreover, these toxic, unexpected, homopolymeric proteins now should be considered in pathogenic models of microsatellite disorders.
Nearly two decades have passed since the discovery that the expansion of microsatellite trinucleotide repeats is responsible for a prominent class of neurological disorders, including Huntington disease and fragile X syndrome. These hereditary diseases are characterized by genetic anticipation or the intergenerational increase in disease severity accompanied by a decrease in age-of-onset. The revelation that the variable expansion of simple sequence repeats accounted for anticipation spawned a number of pathogenesis models and a flurry of studies designed to reveal the molecular events affected by these expansions. This work led to our current understanding that expansions in protein-coding regions result in extended homopolymeric amino acid tracts, often polyglutamine or polyQ, and deleterious protein gain-of-function effects. In contrast, expansions in noncoding regions cause RNA-mediated toxicity. However, the realization that the transcriptome is considerably more complex than previously imagined, as well as the emerging regulatory importance of antisense RNAs, has blurred this distinction. In this review, we summarize evidence for bidirectional transcription of microsatellite disease genes and discuss recent suggestions that some repeat expansions produce variable levels of both toxic RNAs and proteins that influence cell viability, disease penetrance and pathological severity.
The common form of myotonic dystrophy (DM1) is associated with the expression of expanded CTG DNA repeats as RNA (CUG(exp) RNA). To test whether CUG(exp) RNA creates a global splicing defect, we compared the skeletal muscle of two mouse models of DM1, one expressing a CTG(exp) transgene and another homozygous for a defective muscleblind 1 (Mbnl1) gene. Strong correlation in splicing changes for approximately 100 new Mbnl1-regulated exons indicates that loss of Mbnl1 explains >80% of the splicing pathology due to CUG(exp) RNA. In contrast, only about half of mRNA-level changes can be attributed to loss of Mbnl1, indicating that CUG(exp) RNA has Mbnl1-independent effects, particularly on mRNAs for extracellular matrix proteins. We propose that CUG(exp) RNA causes two separate effects: loss of Mbnl1 function (disrupting splicing) and loss of another function that disrupts extracellular matrix mRNA regulation, possibly mediated by Mbnl2. These findings reveal unanticipated similarities between DM1 and other muscular dystrophies.
The expansion of unstable microsatellites is the cause of a number of inherited neuromuscular and neurological disorders. While these expanded repeats can be located in either the coding or non-coding regions of genes, toxic RNA transcripts have been primarily implicated in the pathogenesis of non-coding expansion diseases. In this review, we briefly summarize studies which support this RNA-mediated toxicity model for several neurologic disorders and highlight how pathogenic RNAs might negatively impact nervous system functions. However, it is important to note that the distinction between coding versus non-coding regions has become muddled by recent observations that the transcribed portion of the genome or transcriptome is considerably larger than previously appreciated. Thus, we also explore the possibility that a combination of protein and RNA gain-of-function events underlie some microsatellite expansion diseases.
Recent mapping of functional sequence elements in the human genome has led to the realization that transcription is pervasive and that noncoding RNAs compose a significant portion of the transcriptome. Some dominantly inherited neurological disorders are associated with the expansion of microsatellite repeats in noncoding regions that result in the synthesis of pathogenic RNAs. Here, we review RNA gain-of-function mechanisms underlying three of these microsatellite expansion disorders to illustrate how some mutant RNAs cause disease.
Microsatellite expansions cause a number of dominantly-inherited neurological diseases. Expansions in coding-regions cause protein gain-of-function effects, while non-coding expansions produce toxic RNAs that alter RNA splicing activities of MBNL and CELF proteins. Bi-directional expression of the spinocerebellar ataxia type 8 (SCA8) CTG CAG expansion produces CUG expansion RNAs (CUG(exp)) from the ATXN8OS gene and a nearly pure polyglutamine expansion protein encoded by ATXN8 CAG(exp) transcripts expressed in the opposite direction. Here, we present three lines of evidence that RNA gain-of-function plays a significant role in SCA8: 1) CUG(exp) transcripts accumulate as ribonuclear inclusions that co-localize with MBNL1 in selected neurons in the brain; 2) loss of Mbnl1 enhances motor deficits in SCA8 mice; 3) SCA8 CUG(exp) transcripts trigger splicing changes and increased expression of the CUGBP1-MBNL1 regulated CNS target, GABA-A transporter 4 (GAT4/Gabt4). In vivo optical imaging studies in SCA8 mice confirm that Gabt4 upregulation is associated with the predicted loss of GABAergic inhibition within the granular cell layer. These data demonstrate that CUG(exp) transcripts dysregulate MBNL/CELF regulated pathways in the brain and provide mechanistic insight into the CNS effects of other CUG(exp) disorders. Moreover, our demonstration that relatively short CUG(exp) transcripts cause RNA gain-of-function effects and the growing number of antisense transcripts recently reported in mammalian genomes suggest unrecognized toxic RNAs contribute to the pathophysiology of polyglutamine CAG CTG disorders.
Myotonic dystrophy type 1 (DM1) is an RNA dominant disease in which mutant transcripts containing an expanded CUG repeat (CUG(exp)) cause muscle dysfunction by interfering with biogenesis of other mRNAs. The toxic effects of mutant RNA are mediated partly through sequestration of splicing regulator Muscleblind-like 1 (Mbnl1), a protein that binds to CUG(exp) RNA. A gene that is prominently affected encodes chloride channel 1 (Clcn1), resulting in hyperexcitability of muscle (myotonia). To identify DM1-affected genes and study mechanisms for dysregulation, we performed global mRNA profiling in transgenic mice that express CUG(exp) RNA, when compared with Mbnl1 knockout and Clcn1 null mice. We found that the majority of changes induced by CUG(exp) RNA in skeletal muscle can be explained by reduced activity of Mbnl1, including many changes that are secondary to myotonia. The pathway most affected comprises genes involved in calcium signaling and homeostasis. Some effects of CUG(exp) RNA on gene expression are caused by abnormal alternative splicing or downregulation of Mbnl1-interacting mRNAs. However, several of the most highly dysregulated genes showed altered transcription, as indicated by parallel changes of the corresponding pre-mRNAs. These results support the idea that trans-dominant effects of CUG(exp) RNA on gene expression in this transgenic model may occur at the level of transcription, RNA processing and mRNA decay, and are mediated mainly but not entirely through sequestration of Mbnl1.
Cardiac hypertrophy is a common response to circulatory or neurohumoral stressors as a mechanism to augment contractility. When the heart is under sustained stress, the hypertrophic response can evolve into decompensated heart failure, although the mechanism(s) underlying this transition remain largely unknown. Because phosphorylation of cardiac myosin light chain 2 (MLC2v), bound to myosin at the head-rod junction, facilitates actin-myosin interactions and enhances contractility, we hypothesized that phosphorylation of MLC2v plays a role in the adaptation of the heart to stress. We previously identified an enzyme that predominantly phosphorylates MLC2v in cardiomyocytes, cardiac myosin light-chain kinase (cMLCK), yet the role(s) played by cMLCK in regulating cardiac function in health and disease remain to be determined.
The RNA-mediated disease model for myotonic dystrophy (DM) proposes that microsatellite C(C)TG expansions express toxic RNAs that disrupt splicing regulation by altering MBNL1 and CELF1 activities. While this model explains DM manifestations in muscle, less is known about the effects of C(C)UG expression on the brain. Here, we report that Mbnl2 knockout mice develop several DM-associated central nervous system (CNS) features including abnormal REM sleep propensity and deficits in spatial memory. Mbnl2 is prominently expressed in the hippocampus and Mbnl2 knockouts show a decrease in NMDA receptor (NMDAR) synaptic transmission and impaired hippocampal synaptic plasticity. While Mbnl2 loss did not significantly alter target transcript levels in the hippocampus, misregulated splicing of hundreds of exons was detected using splicing microarrays, RNA-seq, and HITS-CLIP. Importantly, the majority of the Mbnl2-regulated exons examined were similarly misregulated in DM. We propose that major pathological features of the DM brain result from disruption of the MBNL2-mediated developmental splicing program.
Myotonic dystrophy type 1 (DM1) is a multi-systemic disorder caused by a CTG trinucleotide repeat expansion (CTG(exp)) in the DMPK gene. In skeletal muscle, nuclear sequestration of the alternative splicing factor muscleblind-like 1 (MBNL1) explains the majority of the alternative splicing defects observed in the HSA(LR) transgenic mouse model which expresses a pathogenic range CTG(exp). In the present study, we addressed the possibility that MBNL1 sequestration by CUG(exp) RNA also contributes to splicing defects in the mammalian brain. We examined RNA from the brains of homozygous Mbnl1(?E3/?E3) knockout mice using splicing-sensitive microarrays. We used RT-PCR to validate a subset of alternative cassette exons identified by microarray analysis with brain tissues from Mbnl1(?E3/?E3) knockout mice and post-mortem DM1 patients. Surprisingly, splicing-sensitive microarray analysis of Mbnl1(?E3/?E3) brains yielded only 14 candidates for mis-spliced exons. While we confirmed that several of these splicing events are perturbed in both Mbnl1 knockout and DM1 brains, the extent of splicing mis-regulation in the mouse model was significantly less than observed in DM1. Additionally, several alternative exons, including Grin1 exon 4, App exon 7 and Mapt exons 3 and 9, which have previously been reported to be aberrantly spliced in human DM1 brain, were spliced normally in the Mbnl1 knockout brain. The sequestration of MBNL1 by CUG(exp) RNA results in some of the aberrant splicing events in the DM1 brain. However, we conclude that other factors, possibly other MBNL proteins, likely contribute to splicing mis-regulation in the DM1 brain.
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