RNA modifications and processing in cell homeostasis and in response to oxidative stress
RNA modifications and processing events are important modulators of global gene expression. Genomic mutations in the RNA methylase NSun2 and the alternative splicing factor Srsf2 are linked to neurological disorders and cancer in humans, respectively. NSun2 methylates cytosine-5 in most tRNAs and, to a lesser extent, other ncRNAs and mRNAs. Srsf2 is a critical component of the spliceosome and interacts with abundant ncRNAs that are methylated by NSun2. However, how precisely these processes effect homeostasis is largely unexplored. Therefore, the main aims of my PhD were (1) to dissect the molecular mechanisms of NSun2-mediated RNA methylation pathways that regulate cell survival under normal conditions and in response to oxidative stress, and (2) to investigate the importance of Srsf2 in stem cells using skin as a model system.
In the context of RNA modifications, firstly I described how NSun2-expressing cells enrich for transcripts related to enhanced cell survival. Subsequently, by metabolically profiling wildtype and patient-derived dermal fibroblasts carrying loss-of-function mutations in the NSUN2 gene, I showed that the absence of NSun2 is synonymous to an energy-saving, low-translating and stressed cellular state. I further confirmed that lack of NSun2 was sufficient to instigate a cellular stress response, by monitoring BIRC5, a member of the inhibitor of apoptosis family. To further answer whether lack of NSun2 enhanced the susceptibility of patient cells to external stress stimuli, I next exposed them to oxidative stress and measured transcriptional and translational changes. I discovered that NSun2 is required to adapt global protein synthesis to the stress response, while NSun2-depleted cells failed to do so. This was concurrent with NSun2-depleted cells enriching for transcripts related to mRNA degradation and negative regulators of protein translation in response to stress. Generally, since loss of NSun2-driven methylation in tRNAs triggers their cleavage into small ncRNA fragments by angiogenin, I asked how angiogenin or tRNA-derived ncRNAs affect translation levels. In the presence of NSun2, angiogenin alone did not reduce global protein synthesis, yet tRNA fragmentation was required to modulate translation levels. Finally, to uncover how the lack of NSun2 influenced tRNA cleavage and methylation patterns in response to stress, I exposed wildtype and patient cells to sodium arsenite and measured the abundance of tRNA-derived fragments and occurrence of methylation events. With this I discovered unique tRNA fragmentation patterns and global RNA methylation profiles for wildtype and NSun2-depleted cells, that can account for the underlying molecular and phenotypical differences in response to stress.
In the context of alternative splicing, and since the cellular functions of Srsf2 are largely unknown, I explored its role in cellular survival and differentiation. By conditionally deleting SRSF2 in two different stem cell populations of the mouse epidermis, I observed significant thickening of the epidermis, altered expression of cell proliferation and stem cell differentiation markers, and distorted hair follicle structures. Moreover, I demonstrated that lack of Srsf2 promotes skin regeneration following injury, thus strongly indicating that Srsf2 is required for normal skin development and regeneration after injury.
In summary, my research suggests that NSun2-mediated RNA methylation pathways orchestrate transcriptional and translational programmes in response to external stress stimuli, and my studies are the first to show that the alternative splicing factor Srsf2 is required for stem cell differentiation in skin.