Extracellular RNA is transported from one generation to the next in C. elegans
Jose, Antony M
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Experiences during the lifetime of an animal have been proposed to have consequences for subsequent generations. Although it is unclear how such intergenerational transfer of information occurs, RNAs found extracellularly in animals are candidate molecules that can transfer gene-specific regulatory information from one generation to the next because they can enter cells and regulate gene expression. In support of this idea, when double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) is introduced into some animals, the dsRNA can silence genes of matching sequence and the silencing can persist in progeny. Such persistent gene silencing is thought to result from sequence-specific interaction of the RNA within parents to generate chromatin modifications, DNA methylation, and/or secondary RNAs, which are then inherited by progeny. Here, we show that dsRNA can be directly transferred between generations in the worm C. elegans. Inter-generational transfer of dsRNA occurs even in animals that lack any DNA of matching sequence and dsRNA that reaches progeny can spread between cells to cause gene silencing. Surprisingly, extracellular dsRNA can also reach progeny without entry into the cytosol, presumably within intracellular vesicles. Fluorescently labeled dsRNA is imported from the extracellular space into oocytes along with vitellogenin and accumulates in punctate structures within embryos. Subsequent entry into the cytosol of early embryos causes gene silencing in progeny. These results demonstrate the transport of extracellular RNA from one generation to the next to regulate gene expression in an animal and thus suggest a new mechanism for the transmission of experience-dependent effects between generations.