Background: The Caenorhabditis elegans FBF protein and its Drosophila relative, Pumilio, define a large family of eukaryotic RNA-binding proteins. By binding regulatory elements in the 3' untranslated regions (UTRs) of their cognate RNAs, FBF and Pumilio have key post-transcriptional roles in early developmental decisions. In C. elegans, FBF is required for repression of fem-3 mRNA to achieve the hermaphrodite switch from spermatogenesis to oogenesis.
Results: We report here that FBF and NANOS-3 (NOS-3), one of three C. elegans Nanos homologs, interact with each other in both yeast two-hybrid and in vitro assays. We have delineated the portions of each protein required for this interaction. Worms lacking nanos function were derived either by RNA-mediated interference (nos-1 and nos-2) or by use of a deletion mutant (nos-3). The roles of the three nos genes overlap during germ-line development. In certain nos-deficient animals, the hermaphrodite sperm-oocyte switch was defective, leading to the production of excess sperm and no oocytes. In other nos-deficient animals, the entire germ line died during larval development. This germ-line death did not require CED-3, a protease required for apoptosis.
Conclusions: The data suggest that NOS-3 participates in the sperm-oocyte switch through its physical interaction with FBF, forming a regulatory complex that controls fem-3 mRNA. NOS-1 and NOS-2 also function in the switch, but do not interact directly with FBF. The three C. elegans nanos genes, like Drosophila nanos, are also critical for germ-line survival. We propose that this may have been the primitive function of nanos genes.