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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2019 Apr 23;116(17):8451-8456. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1821120116. Epub 2019 Apr 8.

Differential expression of human tRNA genes drives the abundance of tRNA-derived fragments.

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Institute for Research in Biomedicine, Barcelona Institute of Science and Technology, 08028 Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain.
Institute for Research in Biomedicine, Barcelona Institute of Science and Technology, 08028 Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain;
Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies, 08010 Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain.


The human genome encodes hundreds of transfer RNA (tRNA) genes but their individual contribution to the tRNA pool is not fully understood. Deep sequencing of tRNA transcripts (tRNA-Seq) can estimate tRNA abundance at single gene resolution, but tRNA structures and posttranscriptional modifications impair these analyses. Here we present a bioinformatics strategy to investigate differential tRNA gene expression and use it to compare tRNA-Seq datasets from cultured human cells and human brain. We find that sequencing caveats affect quantitation of only a subset of human tRNA genes. Unexpectedly, we detect several cases where the differences in tRNA expression among samples do not involve variations at the level of isoacceptor tRNA sets (tRNAs charged with the same amino acid but using different anticodons), but rather among tRNA genes within the same isodecoder set (tRNAs having the same anticodon sequence). Because isodecoder tRNAs are functionally equal in terms of genetic translation, their differential expression may be related to noncanonical tRNA functions. We show that several instances of differential tRNA gene expression result in changes in the abundance of tRNA-derived fragments (tRFs) but not of mature tRNAs. Examples of differentially expressed tRFs include PIWI-associated RNAs, tRFs present in tissue samples but not in cells cultured in vitro, and somatic tissue-specific tRFs. Our data support that differential expression of tRNA genes regulate noncanonical tRNA functions performed by tRFs.


piRNA; tRNA fragments; tRNA gene expression; tRNA sequencing; tissue-specific expression

[Available on 2019-10-08]

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