Ribonuclease H2, RNA:DNA hybrids and innate immunity
Rigby, Rachel Elizabeth
The activation of the innate immune system is the first line of host defence against infection. Nucleic acids can potently stimulate this response and trigger a series of signalling cascades leading to cytokine production and the establishment of an inflammatory state. Mutations in genes encoding nucleases have been identified in patients with autoimmune diseases, including Aicardi-Goutières syndrome (AGS). This rare childhood inflammatory disorder is characterised by the presence of high levels of the antiviral cytokine interferon-α in the cerebrospinal fluid and blood, which is thought to be produced as a consequence of the activation of the innate immunity by unprocessed self-nucleic acids. This thesis therefore aimed to define the role of one of the AGS nucleases, the Ribonuclease H2 (RNase H2) complex, in innate immunity, and to establish if nucleic acid substrates of this enzyme were able to induce type I interferon production in vitro. The AGS nucleases may function as components of the innate immune response to nucleic acids. Consistent with this hypothesis, RNase H2 was constitutively expressed in immune cells, however, its expression was not upregulated in response to type I interferons. RNase H2-deficient cells responded normally to a range of nucleic acid PAMPs, which implied that a role for RNase H2 as a negative regulator of the immune response was unlikely, in contrast to the reported cellular functions of two other AGS proteins, TREX1 and SAMHD1. Therefore, no clear evidence was found for the direct involvement of RNase H2 in the innate immune response to nucleic acids. An alternative model for the pathogenesis of disease hypothesises that decreased RNase H2 activity within the cell results in an accumulation of RNA:DNA hybrids. To investigate the immunostimulatory potential of such substrates, RNA:DNA hybrids with different physiochemical properties were designed and synthesised. Methods to purify the hybrids from other contaminating nucleic acid species were established and their capacity as activators of the innate immune response tested using a range of in vitro cellular systems. A GU-rich 60 bp RNA:DNA hybrid was shown to be an effective activator of a pro-inflammatory cytokine response exclusively in Flt3-L bone marrow cultures. This response was completely dependent on signalling involving MyD88 and/or Trif, however the specific receptor involved remains to be determined. Reduced cellular RNase H2 activity did not affect the ability of Flt3-L cultures to mount a cytokine response against the RNA:DNA hybrid. These in vitro studies suggested that RNA:DNA hybrids may be a novel nucleic acid PAMP. Taken together, the data in this thesis suggest that the cellular function of RNase H2 is in the suppression of substrate formation rather than as a component of the immune response pathways. Future studies to identify endogenous immunostimulatory RNA:DNA hybrids and the signalling pathways activated by them should provide a detailed understanding of the molecular mechanisms involved in the pathogenesis of AGS and related autoimmune diseases.