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.
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.
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