The soft genome

Worm. 2015 Jan 28;3(4):e989798. doi: 10.4161/21624054.2014.989798. eCollection Oct-Dec 2014.


Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans) nematodes transmit small RNAs across generations, a process that enables transgenerational regulation of genes. In contrast to changes to the DNA sequence, transgenerational transmission of small RNA-mediated responses is reversible, and thus enables "soft" or "flexible" inheritance of acquired characteristics. Until very recently only introduction of foreign genetic material (viruses, transposons, transgenes) was shown to directly lead to inheritance of small RNAs. New discoveries however, demonstrate that starvation also triggers inheritance of endogenous small RNAs in C.elegans. Multiple generations of worms inherit starvation-responsive endogenous small RNAs, and starvation also results in heritable extension of the progeny's lifespan. In this Commentary paper we explore the intriguing possibility that large parts of the genome and many additional traits are similarly subjected to heritable small RNA-mediated regulation, and focus on the potential influence of transgenerational RNAi on the worm's physiology. While the universal relevance of this mechanism remains to be discovered, we will examine how the discoveries made in worms already challenge long held dogmas in genetics and evolution.