Background: To study the biological function of miRNAs, and to achieve sustained or conditional gene silencing with siRNAs, systems that allow controlled expression of these small RNAs are desirable. Methods for cell delivery of siRNAs include transient transfection of synthetic siRNAs and expression of siRNAs in the form of short hairpins using constitutive RNA polymerase III promoters. Systems employing constitutive RNA polymerase II promoters have been used to express miRNAs. However, for many experimental systems these methods do not offer sufficient control over expression.
Results: We present an inducible mammalian expression system that allows for the conditional expression of short hairpin RNAs that are processed in vivo to generate miRNAs or siRNAs. Using modified nuclear receptors in a two hybrid format and a synthetic ligand, the Rheoswitch system allows rapid and reversible induction of mRNA expression. We evaluated the system's properties using miR-122 as a model miRNA. A short hairpin encoding miR-122 cloned into the expression vector was correctly processed to yield mature miRNA upon induction with ligand and the amount of miRNA produced was commensurate with the concentration of ligand. miR-122 produced in this way was capable of silencing both endogenous target genes and appropriately designed reporter genes. Stable cell lines were obtained, resulting in heritable, consistent and reversible expression of miR-122, a significant advantage over transient transfection. Based on these results, obtained with a microRNA we adapted the method to produce a desired siRNA by designing short hairpins that can be accurately and efficiently processed.
Conclusion: We established an Inducible expression system with a miR-122 backbone that can be used for functional studies of miRNAs and their targets, in heterologous cells that do not normally express the miRNA. Additionally we demonstrate the feasibility of using the miR-122 backbone to express shRNA with a desired siRNA guide strand for inducible RNAi silencing.