Background: Germline nuclear RNAi in C. elegans is a transgenerational gene-silencing pathway that leads to H3K9 trimethylation (H3K9me3) and transcriptional silencing at the target genes. H3K9me3 induced by either exogenous double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) or endogenous siRNA (endo-siRNA) is highly specific to the target loci and transgenerationally heritable. Despite these features, the role of H3K9me3 in siRNA-mediated transcriptional silencing and inheritance of the silencing state at native target genes is unclear. In this study, we took combined genetic and whole-genome approaches to address this question.
Results: Here we demonstrate that siRNA-mediated H3K9me3 requires combined activities of three H3K9 histone methyltransferases: MET-2, SET-25, and SET-32. set-32 single, met-2 set-25 double, and met-2 set-25;set-32 triple mutant adult animals all exhibit prominent reductions in H3K9me3 throughout the genome, with met-2 set-25;set-32 mutant worms losing all detectable H3K9me3 signals. Surprisingly, loss of high-magnitude H3K9me3 at the native nuclear RNAi targets has no effect on the transcriptional silencing state. In addition, the exogenous dsRNA-induced transcriptional silencing and heritable RNAi at oma-1, a well-established nuclear RNAi reporter gene, are completely resistant to the loss of H3K9me3.
Conclusions: Nuclear RNAi-mediated H3K9me3 in C. elegans requires multiple histone methyltransferases, including MET-2, SET-25, and SET-32. H3K9me3 is not essential for dsRNA-induced heritable RNAi or the maintenance of endo-siRNA-mediated transcriptional silencing in C. elegans. We propose that siRNA-mediated transcriptional silencing in C. elegans can be maintained by an H3K9me3-independent mechanism.