Repression of cellular reprogramming in germ cells is critical to maintaining cell fate and fertility. When germ cells mis-express somatic genes they can be directly converted into other cell types, resulting in loss of totipotency and reproductive potential. Identifying the molecular mechanisms that coordinate these cell fate decisions is an active area of investigation. Here we show that RNAi pathways play a key role in maintaining germline gene expression and totipotency after heat stress. By examining transcriptional changes that occur in mut-16 mutants, lacking a key protein in the RNAi pathway, at elevated temperature we found that genes normally expressed in the soma are mis-expressed in germ cells. Furthermore, these genes displayed increased chromatin accessibility in the germlines of mut-16 mutants at elevated temperature. These findings indicate that the RNAi pathway plays a key role in preventing aberrant expression of somatic genes in the germline during heat stress. This regulation occurs in part through the maintenance of germline chromatin, likely acting through the nuclear RNAi pathway. Identification of new pathways governing germ cell reprogramming is critical to understanding how cells maintain proper gene expression and may provide key insights into how cell identity is lost in some germ cell tumors.
© The Author(s) 2020. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Nucleic Acids Research.