R-loops are three-stranded nucleic acid structures found abundantly and yet often viewed as by-products of transcription. Studying cells from patients with a motor neuron disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis 4 [ALS4]) caused by a mutation in senataxin, we uncovered how R-loops promote transcription. In ALS4 patients, the senataxin mutation depletes R-loops with a consequent effect on gene expression. With fewer R-loops in ALS4 cells, the expression of BAMBI, a negative regulator of transforming growth factor β (TGF-β), is reduced; that then leads to the activation of the TGF-β pathway. We uncovered that genome-wide R-loops influence promoter methylation of over 1,200 human genes. DNA methyl-transferase 1 favors binding to double-stranded DNA over R-loops. Thus, in forming R-loops, nascent RNA blocks DNA methylation and promotes further transcription. Hence, our results show that nucleic acid structures, in addition to sequences, influence the binding and activity of regulatory proteins.
Keywords: ALS; ALS4; DNA methylation; R-loop; TGFB; amyotrophic lateral sclerosis; helicase; motor neuron disease; senataxin; transcription.
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