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RNA interference (RNAi, also known as RNA silencing) has recently emerged as a fundamental and widespread regulator of gene expression. New developments in this field implicate RNAi in the innate immune response to infection in plants and animals. Evidence from plants, tissue culture cells, and Caenorhabditis elegans–based systems previously suggested that RNAi plays a role in the defense against viral infection, but definitive evidence using viruses and whole animals has been lacking. Two recent reports now show that both Drosophila embryos and adult flies mount a substantial innate immune response to insect viruses that requires the RNAi machinery. This innate response is distinct from known bacterial and fungal defense systems provided by the Toll and immune deficiency (Imd) pathways, thus defining a previously unrecognized strategy to fight viral infection. Whether RNAi, aside from its function in counteracting viruses, is also used to fight bacterial infection remained enigmatic. New evidence, however, now shows that in Arabidopsis, the bacterial component, flagellin, induces the expression of a specific microRNA, which in turn leads to the down-regulation of the signaling pathways that are implicated in disease susceptibility. This down-regulation then increases the plant's resistance to infection. Whether RNAi mechanisms also exist for combating bacterial diseases in animals remains an intriguing question for future studies.
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