Escalation of genome defense capacity enables control of an expanding meiotic driver

Peiwei Chen, Katherine C. Pan, Eunice H. Park, Yicheng Luo, Yuh Chwen G. Lee, Alexei A. Aravin,  bioRxiv,  2024.

From RNA interference to chromatin silencing, diverse genome defense pathways silence selfish genetic elements to safeguard genome integrity1,2. Despite their diversity, different defense pathways share a modular organization, where numerous specificity factors identify diverse targets and common effectors silence them. In the PIWI-interacting RNA (piRNA) pathway, which controls selfish elements in the metazoan germline, diverse target RNAs are first identified by complementary base pairing with piRNAs and then silenced by PIWI-clade nucleases via enzymatic cleavage1,3. Such a binary architecture allows the defense systems to be readily adaptable, where new targets can be captured via the innovation of new specificity factors4,5. Thus, our current understanding of genome defense against lineage-specific selfish genes has been largely limited to the evolution of specificity factors, while it remains poorly understood whether other types of innovations are required. Here, we describe a new type of innovation, which escalates the defense capacity of the piRNA pathway to control a recently expanded selfish gene in Drosophila melanogaster. Through an in vivo RNAi screen for repressors of Stellate—a recently evolved and expanded selfish meiotic driver68—we discovered a novel defense factor, Trailblazer. Trailblazer is a transcription factor that promotes the expression of two PIWI-clade nucleases, Aub and AGO3, to match Stellate in abundance. Recent innovation in the DNA-binding domain of Trailblazer enabled it to drastically elevate Aub and AGO3 expression in the D. melanogaster lineage, thereby escalating the silencing capacity of the piRNA pathway to control expanded Stellate and safeguard fertility. As copy-number expansion is a recurrent feature of diverse selfish genes across the tree of life912, we envision that augmenting the defense capacity to quantitatively match selfish genes is likely a repeatedly employed defense strategy in evolution.


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