Paramutation of tobacco transgenes by small RNA-mediated transcriptional gene silencing
It has been well established that trans-acting small RNAs guide promoter methylation leading to its inactivation and gene silencing at the transcriptional level (TGS). Here we addressed the question of the influence of the locus structure and epigenetic modifications of the target locus on its susceptibility for being paramutated by trans-acting small RNA molecules. Silencing was induced by crossing a 35S promoter silencer locus 271 with two different 35S-driven transgene loci, locus 2 containing a highly expressed single copy gene and locus 1 containing an inverted posttranscriptionally silenced (PTGS) repeat of this gene. Three generations of exposure to RNA signals from the 271 locus were required to complete silencing and methylation of the 35S promoter within locus 2. Segregating methylated locus 2 epialleles were obtained only from the third generation of hybrids, and this methylation was not correlated with silencing. Strikingly, only one generation was required for the PTGS locus 1 to acquire complete TGS and 35S promoter methylation. In this case, paramutated locus 1 epialleles bearing methylated and inactive 35S promoters segregated already from the first generation of hybrids. The results support the hypothesis that PTGS loci containing a palindrome structure and methylation in the coding region are more sensitive to paramutation by small RNAs and exhibit a strong tendency to formation of meiotically transmissible TGS epialleles. These features contrast with a non-methylated single copy transgenic locus that required several generations of contact with RNA silencing molecules to become imprinted in a stable epiallele.