Virus RNA silencing in plants and insects

RNA silencing Eucaryotic organisms depend on networks of gene regulatory pathways. Small RNAs (sRNAs), are key components of these networks. sRNAs are short (21–24 nt in length), endogenously expressed, and are processed from double stranded (ds)RNAs or dsRNA-like precursors. In both plants and animals, sRNAs exert their functions upon incorporation into ribonucleoprotein silencing complexes and through their base-paring capacity. They are implicated in a variety of processes, including post-transcriptional regulation of mRNA, mRNA stability and availability for translation, establishment of heterochromatin and silencing of transposons. Different classes of sRNAs differ in the proteins required in their biogenesis, the constitution of ribonucleoprotein complexes that mediate their regulatory functions, their type of gene regulation, and the biological functions in which they are implicated. Plants display a remarkable diversity of sRNA types and sRNA pathways, likely needed for managing multiple environmental stimuli, including biotic and abiotic stresses. Several lines of evidence suggest that plant sRNAs play critical roles in plant–pathogen interactions. Indeed, upon infection, most plant pathogens can interfere with the expression of endogenous sRNAs, thus altering the expression of specific host factors implicated in the suppression or in the activation of plant defences. Evidence for these phenomena has been reported for bacterial and fungal pathogens.

Viruses are obligate infectious agents, whose life cycle (expression of viral proteins, viral genome replication and virion assembly) is integrated with host cell functions. Plant viruses can both modify the profiles of endogenous sRNAs (in common with bacteria and fungi) and induce the production of additional sRNAs derived from their own genomes (viral sRNAs; vsiRNAs). The latter gives a clear indication of the activation of RNA silencing-based responses of the plant. In some cases, this results in reduction of the titre of the invading virus and, in recovery of upper, non-inoculated leaves. To counteract RNA silencing, many plant viruses have evolved proteins (viral suppressors of RNA silencing: VSR) that target various components of the plant silencing machinery. Viruses can induce specific symptoms resembling developmental anomalies and affecting organs and tissues such as leaves, flowers and fruits. These anomalies are often reconcilable with virus-induced alterations of RNA silencing-based endogenous pathways, due to: i) the direct activity of VSRs on endogenous sRNAs or on silencing related effectors; ii) the abundance of vsiRNAs in competition with endogenous sRNAs; iii) the action of specific vsiRNAs entering into RNA silencing complexes and targeting specific host genes.

This review provides an overview of the major cellular RNA silencing pathways in plants with particular reference to those involved in antiviral functions and highlights examples of the complex interactions between viral molecular processes and host RNA processes.


Viral induction and suppression of RNA silencing in plants. Biochim Biophys Acta. Apr 30 2011
RNA silencing in plants and insects can function as a defence mechanism against invading viruses. RNA silencing-based antiviral defence entails the production of virus-derived small interfering RNAs which guide specific antiviral effector complexes to inactivate viral genomes. As a response to this defence system, viruses have evolved viral suppressors of RNA silencing (VSRs) to overcome the host defence. VSRs can act on various steps of the different silencing pathways. Viral infection can have a profound impact on the host endogenous RNA silencing regulatory pathways; alterations of endogenous short RNA expression profile and gene expression are often associated with viral infections and their symptoms. Here we discuss our current understanding of the main steps of RNA-silencing responses to viral invasion in plants and the effects of VSRs on endogenous pathways. This article is part of a Special Issue entitled: MicroRNAs in viral gene regulation.

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