Background: The siRNA and piRNA pathways have been shown in insects to be essential for regulation of gene expression and defence against exogenous and endogenous genetic elements (viruses and transposable elements). The vast majority of endogenous small RNAs produced by the siRNA and piRNA pathways originate from repetitive or transposable elements (TE). In D. melanogaster, TE-derived endogenous siRNAs and piRNAs are involved in genome surveillance and maintenance of genome integrity. In the medically relevant malaria mosquito Anopheles gambiae TEs constitute 12-16% of the genome size. Genetic variations induced by TE activities are known to shape the genome landscape and to alter the fitness in An. gambiae.
Results: Here, using bioinformatics approaches we analyzed the small RNA data sets from 6 libraries formally reported in a previous study and examined the expression of the mixed germline/somatic siRNAs and piRNAs produced in adult An. gambiae females. We characterized a large population of TE-derived endogenous siRNAs and piRNAs, which constitutes 56-60% of the total siRNA and piRNA reads in the analysed libraries. Moreover, we identified a number of protein coding genes producing gene-specific siRNAs and piRNAs that were generally expressed at much lower levels than the TE-associated small RNAs. Detailed sequence analysis revealed that An. gambiae piRNAs were produced by both "ping-pong" dependent (TE-associated piRNAs) and independent mechanisms (genic piRNAs). Similarly to D. melanogaster, more than 90% of the detected piRNAs were produced from TE-associated clusters in An. gambiae. We also found that biotic stress as blood feeding and infection with Plasmodium parasite, the etiological agent of malaria, modulated the expression levels of the endogenous siRNAs and piRNAs in An. gambiae.
Conclusions: We identified a large and diverse set of the endogenously derived siRNAs and piRNAs that share common and distinct aspects of small RNA expression across insect species, and inferred their impact on TE and gene activity in An. gambiae. The TE-specific small RNAs produced by both the siRNA and piRNA pathways represent an important aspect of genome stability and genetic variation, which might have a strong impact on the evolution of the genome and vector competence in the malaria mosquitoes.