piRNAs and their diverse roles: a transposable element-driven tactic for gene regulation?

FASEB J. 2017 Feb;31(2):436-446. doi: 10.1096/fj.201600637RR. Epub 2016 Oct 31.


P-element-induced wimpy testis (PIWI)-interacting RNAs (piRNAs) are small, noncoding RNAs known for silencing transposable elements (TEs) in the germline of animals. Most genomes host TEs, which are notorious for mobilizing themselves and endangering survival of the host if not controlled. By silencing TEs in the germline, piRNAs prevent harmful mutations from being passed on to the next generation. How piRNAs are generated and how they silence TEs were the focus of researchers ever since their discovery. Now a spate of recent papers are beginning to tell us that piRNAs can play roles beyond TE silencing and are involved in diverse cellular processes from mRNA regulation to development or genome rearrangement. In this review, we discuss some of these recently reported roles. Data on these new roles are often rudimentary, and the involvement of piRNAs in these processes is yet to be definitely established. What is interesting is that the reports are on animals widely separated on the phylogenetic tree of life and that piRNAs were also found outside the gonadal tissues. Some of these piRNAs map to TE sequences, prompting us to hypothesize that genomes may have co-opted the TE-derived piRNA system for their own regulation.-Sarkar, A., Volff, J.-N., Vaury, C. piRNAs and their diverse roles: a transposable element-driven tactic for gene regulation?

Keywords: RNA silencing; co-option; genomic functions.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • DNA Transposable Elements*
  • Gene Expression Regulation / physiology*
  • RNA Interference
  • RNA, Small Interfering / genetics
  • RNA, Small Interfering / metabolism*


  • DNA Transposable Elements
  • RNA, Small Interfering