Shannon Tessier, Ph. D. Biology 2014

Regulation of gene expression over cycles of torpor-arousal in thirteen-lined ground squirrels



Mammalian hibernators undergo profound behavioural, physiological and biochemical changes to cope with hypothermia, ischemia-reperfusion, and finite fuel reserves during days or weeks of continuous torpor. Against a backdrop of global suppression of energy-expensive processes such as transcription and translation, selected genes/proteins are strategically up-regulated to meet challenges associated with hibernation. Hence, hibernation involves substantial transcriptional and post-transcriptional regulatory mechanisms and provides a model to determine how a set of common genes/proteins can be differentially regulated to enhance stress tolerance beyond that which is possible for nonhibernators. The present research analyzed epigenetic factors, signal transduction pathways, transcription factors, and RNA binding proteins that regulate gene/protein expression programs that define the hibernating phenotype. Epigenetic factors alter gene expression programs by influencing the accessibility of DNA promoter regions to the transcriptional machinery. While DNA methylation was not differentially regulated comparing summer and winter animals, posttranslational modifications on histone proteins were responsive to torpor-arousal, possibly providing a mechanism to dynamically alter chromatin structure. Unique posttranslational modifications on H3 and H2B were identified by mass spectrometry; these have never been found in other organisms. Signal transduction pathways such as mitogen-activated protein kinases convert information received at the cell surface to regulatory targets within cells that promote changes in gene expression. Results showed that MAPK regulation is crucial during arousal from torpor in muscle and heart. Important cytoprotective features needed for hibernation are antioxidant defenses; regulation of antioxidant genes is under primary control of transcription factors, such as Nrf2. Data presented elucidates the regulation of Nrf2 transcription factors by post-translational modifications (e.g. serine phosphorylation, lysine acetylation) and protein-protein interactions with a negative regulator (KEAP1) during hibernation. Finally, a role for RNA binding proteins including TIA-1, TIAR, and PABP-1 is described. Data showed the localization of RNA-binding proteins to subnuclear structures which may represent highly organized storage centers and/or enhance mRNA stability. Taken together, the thesis identifies novel regulatory mechanisms that aid suppression of transcriptional and translational rates, while also coordinating complex pathways that selectively enhance cytoprotective pathways aimed at mitigating stresses associated with torpor-arousal.