Background: The PIWI/piRNA pathway is a conserved machinery important for germ cell development and fertility. This piRNA-guided molecular machinery is best known for repressing derepressed transposable elements (TE) during epigenomic reprogramming. The extent to which piRNAs are involved in modulating transcripts beyond TEs still need to be clarified, and it may be a stage-dependent event. We chose chicken germline as a study model because of the significantly lower TE complexity in the chicken genome compared to mammalian species.
Results: We generated high-confidence piRNA candidates in various stages across chicken germline development by 3'-end-methylation-enriched small RNA sequencing and in-house bioinformatics analysis. We observed a significant developmental stage-dependent loss of TE association and a shifting of the ping-pong cycle signatures. Moreover, the stage-dependent reciprocal abundance of LINE retrotransposons, CR1-C, and its associated piRNAs implicated the developmental stage-dependent role of piRNA machinery. The stage dependency of piRNA expression and its potential functions can be better addressed by analyzing the piRNA precursors/clusters. Interestingly, the new piRNA clusters identified from embryonic chicken testes revealed evolutionary conservation between chickens and mammals, which was previously thought to not exist.
Conclusions: In this report, we provided an original chicken RNA resource and proposed an analytical methodology that can be used to investigate stage-dependent changes in piRNA compositions and their potential roles in TE regulation and beyond, and also revealed possible conserved functions of piRNAs in developing germ cells.
Keywords: Chicken; Development; Germ cell; Transposable elements; piRNA cluster.