Background: RNA interference (RNAi) is a phenomenon in which introduced double-stranded RNAs (dsRNAs) silence gene expression through specific degradation of their cognate mRNAs. Recent analyses in vitro suggest that dsRNAs may be copied, or converted, into 21-23 nucleotide (nt) guide RNAs that direct the nucleases responsible for RNAi to their homologous mRNA targets. Such small RNAs are also associated with gene silencing in plants.
Results: We developed a quantitative single-embryo assay to examine the mechanism of RNAi in vivo. We found that dsRNA rapidly induced mRNA degradation. A fraction of dsRNAs were converted into 21-23 nt RNAs, and their time of appearance and persistence correlated precisely with inhibition of expression. The strength of RNAi increased disproportionately with increasing dsRNA length, but an 80bp dsRNA was capable of effective gene silencing. RNAi was saturated at low dsRNA concentration and inhibited by excess unrelated dsRNA. The antisense strand of the dsRNA determined target specificity, and excess complementary sense or antisense single-stranded RNAs (ssRNAs) competed with the RNAi reaction.
Conclusions: Processed dsRNAs can act directly to mediate RNAi, with the antisense strand determining mRNA target specificity. The involvement of 21-23 nt RNAs is supported by the kinetics of the processing reaction and the observed size dependence. RNAi depends on a limiting factor, possibly the nuclease that generates the 21-23 mer species. The active moiety appears to contain both sense and antisense RNA strands.