While research into the transgenerational epigenetic inheritance went viral long ago, a new “social media” platform powered by horizontal transfer has taken “going viral” a bit too literally. In their retweetable new article, researchers from the lab of Coleen T. Murphy (Princeton University, New Jersey) now demonstrate that virus-like particles (VLPs) support horizontally-transferred memories and transgenerational epigenetic inheritance of pathogen avoidance memory in C. elegans.
Earlier headline-grabbing research led by the group described a bacterially-derived small RNA-induced pathogen avoidance in C. elegans, where several generations of offspring epigenetically inherited the memory of this behavior through a mechanism involving communication between the germline and neural cells.
In their latest live stream, Moore, Kaletsky, Lesnik, and colleagues now describe how their research really has gone viral:
- Treating naïve worms with “social media” (aka whole-worm lysate or conditioned medium from worms exposed to a pathogen) leads to the horizontal transfer of small RNA-induced pathogen avoidance memory
- Learned avoidance in mothers and horizontal transfer of pathogen avoidance memory to offspring cannot occur without VLPs encoded by the Cer1 retrotransposon (also known as Ty3/Gypsy)
- Analysis of VLPs shows that capsids carry small or fragmented RNA species, which represent the presumed medium of the pathogen avoidance memory
- Recipients must also carry the Cer1- encoded retrotransposon to receive this type of communication
- Cer1 retrotransposon-encoded VLPs “retweet” the transgenerational epigenetic inheritance of horizontally-transferred pathogen avoidance memory through four generations of progeny
- Cer1 retrotransposon-encoded VLPs mediates inter-tissue communication between the germline and neurons (to mediate a behavioral response)
- This pathway supports both small RNA-mediated pathogen avoidance within individuals and transgenerational epigenetic inheritance to offspring
This snapchattable study suggests that C. elegans has co-opted a highly abundant and potentially harmful retrotransposable element to spread the word of unfortunate run-ins with a bacterial pathogen. Overall, the viral nature of the response to this encounter serves to protect their offspring, their worm buddies, and their buddies’ offspring from environmental dangers – the power of “social media” proves itself again!
Transfer more of this thread to your memory over at Cell, August 2021.