Cells have sophisticated RNA-directed mechanisms to regulate genes, destroy viruses, or silence transposable elements (TEs). In terrestrial plants, a specialized non-coding RNA machinery involving RNA polymerase IV (Pol IV) and small interfering RNAs (siRNAs) targets DNA methylation and silencing to TEs. Here, we present a bioinformatics protocol for annotating and quantifying siRNAs that derive from long terminal repeat (LTR) retrotransposons. The approach was validated using small RNA northern blot analyses, comparing the species Arabidopsis thaliana and Brachypodium distachyon. To assist hybridization probe design, we configured a genome browser to show small RNA-seq mappings in distinct colors and shades according to their nucleotide lengths and abundances, respectively. Samples from wild-type and pol IV mutant plants, cross-species negative controls, and a conserved microRNA control validated the detected siRNA signals, confirming their origin from specific TEs and their Pol IV-dependent biogenesis. Moreover, an optimized labeling method yielded probes that could detect low-abundance siRNAs from B. distachyon TEs. The integration of de novo TE annotation, small RNA-seq profiling, and northern blotting, as outlined here, will facilitate the comparative genomic analysis of RNA silencing in crop plants and non-model species.
Keywords: Arabidopsis thaliana; Brachypodium distachyon; Long terminal repeat (LTR) retrotransposon; Northern blotting; RNA polymerase IV (Pol IV); siRNAs.