In plants, DNA methylation can be mediated by a class of Argonaute4 (AGO4)-associated heterochromatic siRNAs (hc-siRNAs), through a pathway termed RNA-directed DNA methylation (RdDM). It has been thought that RdDM is solely a nuclear process, as both the biogenesis and functioning of hc-siRNAs take place in the nucleus. In this study, we unexpectedly found that hc-siRNAs are predominantly present in the cytoplasm. We demonstrated that AGO4 is loaded with hc-siRNAs in the cytoplasm and the formation of mature AGO4/siRNA complexes requires HSP90 and the cleavage activity of AGO4. Intriguingly, siRNA binding facilitates the redistribution of AGO4 into the nucleus, likely through inducing conformational change that leads to the exposure of the nuclear localization signal (NLS). Our findings reveal an unsuspected cytoplasmic step in the RdDM pathway. We propose that selective nuclear import of mature AGO4/siRNA complexes is a key regulatory point prior to the effector stage of RdDM.
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