Long noncoding RNA in genome regulation: prospects and mechanisms

RNA Biol. Sep-Oct 2010;7(5):582-5. doi: 10.4161/rna.7.5.13216. Epub 2010 Sep 1.


Long noncoding RNAs (lncRNAs) are pervasively transcribed and critical regulators of the epigenome[1, 2]. These long, polyadenylated RNAs do not code for proteins, but function directly as RNAs, recruiting chromatin modifiers to mediate transcriptional changes in processes ranging from X-inactivation (XIST) to imprinting (H19)[3]. The recent discovery that lncRNA HOTAIR can link chromatin changes to cancer metastasis[4] furthers the relevance of lncRNAs to human disease. Here, we discuss lncRNAs as regulatory modules and explore the implications for disease pathogenesis. Although large-scale analyses of mammalian transcriptomes have revealed that more than 50% of transcripts have no protein coding potential[2, 5, 6], the functions of these putative transcripts are largely unknown. A subset of these noncoding transcripts are termed long noncoding RNAs (lncRNAs), based on an arbitrary minimum length of 200 nucleotides. LncRNAs are roughly classified based on their position relative to protein-coding genes: intergenic (between genes), intragenic/intronic (within genes), and antisense[2]. Initial efforts to characterize these molecules demonstrated that they function in cis, regulating their immediate genomic neighbors. Examples include AIR, XIST, and Kcnq1ot (reviewed in [1, 7, 8]), which recruit chromatin modifying complexes to silence adjacent sites. The scope of lncRNAs in gene regulation was advanced with the finding that lncRNA HOTAIR exhibited trans regulatory capacities. HOTAIR is transcribed at the intersection of opposing chromatin domains in the HOXC locus, but targets Polycomb Repressive Complex 2 (PRC2) to silence 40 kilobases of HOXD[9], a locus involved in developmental patterning. A subsequent study revealed that HOTAIR is overexpressed in approximately one quarter of human breast cancers, directing PRC2 to approximately 800 ectopic sites in the genome, which leads to histone H3 lysine 27 trimethylation and changes in gene expression[4]. The impacts of lncRNA-mediated chromatin changes are noteworthy: not only did HOTAIR drive metastasis in a mouse model, but HOTAIR expression in human breast cancer was found to be an independent prognostic marker for death and metastasis[4]. The fact that HOTAIR drives chromatin reprogramming genome-wide suggests that long-range regulation by lncRNAs may be a widespread mechanism. This is supported by a study showing that > 20% of tested lncRNAs are bound by PRC2 and other chromatin modifiers[10]. Furthermore, this is an underestimate of the total RNAs involved in chromatin modification, as PRC2 target genes also transcribe smaller 50-200 nt RNAs that interact with SUZ12 to mediate gene repression[11]. These findings provoke questions regarding the initial triggers for HOTAIR overexpression and whether understanding of lncRNA mechanics may have clinical relevance.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Chromatin Assembly and Disassembly
  • Disease / genetics
  • Gene Expression Regulation*
  • Humans
  • RNA, Untranslated / metabolism*


  • RNA, Untranslated