In C. elegans embryos, transcriptional repression in germline blastomeres requires PIE-1 protein. Germline blastomere-specific localization of PIE-1 depends, in part, upon regulated degradation of PIE-1 in somatic cells. We and others have shown that the temporal and spatial regulation of PIE-1 degradation is controlled by translation of the substrate-binding subunit, ZIF-1, of an E3 ligase. We now show that ZIF-1 expression in embryos is regulated by five maternally-supplied RNA-binding proteins. POS-1, MEX-3, and SPN-4 function as repressors of ZIF-1 expression, whereas MEX-5 and MEX-6 antagonize this repression. All five proteins bind directly to the zif-1 3' UTR in vitro. We show that, in vivo, POS-1 and MEX-5/6 have antagonistic roles in ZIF-1 expression. In vitro, they bind to a common region of the zif-1 3' UTR, with MEX-5 binding impeding that by POS-1. The region of the zif-1 3' UTR bound by MEX-5/6 also partially overlaps with that bound by MEX-3, consistent with their antagonistic functions on ZIF-1 expression in vivo. Whereas both MEX-3 and SPN-4 repress ZIF-1 expression, neither protein alone appears to be sufficient, suggesting that they function together in ZIF-1 repression. We propose that MEX-3 and SPN-4 repress ZIF-1 expression exclusively in 1- and 2-cell embryos, the only period during embryogenesis when these two proteins co-localize. As the embryo divides, ZIF-1 continues to be repressed in germline blastomeres by POS-1, a germline blastomere-specific protein. MEX-5/6 antagonize repression by POS-1 and MEX-3, enabling ZIF-1 expression in somatic blastomeres. We propose that ZIF-1 expression results from a net summation of complex positive and negative translational regulation by 3' UTR-binding proteins, with expression in a specific blastomere dependent upon the precise combination of these proteins in that cell.
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