Hi! You reached the research group of Jernej Ule, based at the Department of Molecular Neuroscience at the UCL Institute of Neurology.

  • UCL lab website
  • UCL research website

  • Why RNA?

    The primary task of the nervous system is to process and store information, and we study how this is achieved at the level of RNA molecules. The nervous system contains many cell types, which have diverse shapes and are most often highly polarized. Especially in neurons, specific mRNAs are localized to distal compartments such as the axon growth cones or the dendrites, where they are translated into proteins. Each mRNA passes through several regulatory stages, which are controlled by protein-RNA complexes. In addition to the regulated pre-mRNA or mRNA, these complexes include non-coding RNAs (ncRNAs), RNA-binding proteins (RBPs) and other associated proteins.

    We study the structure and function of protein-RNA complexes in the brain. In recent years, we have studied how these complexes regulate alternative splicing, and how aberrant function of protein-RNA complexes contribute to neurologic diseases. Currently we study how the sequence and structure of pre-mRNAs and mRNAs defines the composition and function of the regulatory complexes. Moreover, we study how the composition of these complexes changes in response to cellular signals, such as neuronal synaptic activity or the signals that initiate motor neuron disease.

    We cross the boundaries of experimental and computational biology by employing cellular and molecular biology, high-throughput sequencing and predictive modeling. To fully understand the dynamic nature of protein-RNA complexes, we study them within intact cells using innovative transcriptomic techniques such as iCLIP. As our model system, we use induced pluripotent stem cells from healthy individuals or patients with disease-causing mutations, which we modify with genome editing and differentiate into specific neuronal or glial cell types.

    Specifically, we aim to:

    1) Determine how the structure of protein-RNA complexes instructs their function in neurons.

    2) Understand how protein-RNA complexes respond to neuronal signals, particularly in motor neurons.

    3) Define how mutations that affect the composition of protein-RNA complexes can impact RNA regulation in neurons, and thereby contribute to neurologic diseases.

    An RNA molecule passes through many compartments in the cell, where it undergoes processing, editing or sophisticated regulation. And here are some of the RNA stories that we have passed through:

    Methods for nucleotide-resolution studies of protein-RNA interactions New technologies for studies of protein-RNA interactions.
    We developed individual-nucleotide resolution UV crosslinking and immunoprecipitation (iCLIP) to quantify protein-RNA interactions in the whole transcriptome, thereby fully exploiting the power of high-throughput sequencing. We review the progress made in the last years in the technologies for studies of protein-RNA interactions. You can download the manuscript here. We also performed a comparative analysis of iCLIP and CLIP, click here.

    Artistic rendering of ultraviolet crosslinking of the hnRNP C1/C2 tetramer interacting with pre-mRNA. Introns and evolution
    In collaboration with the Nick Luscombe lab, we have discovered a major new role for the RNA-binding protein hnRNP C. We have originally shown that hnRNP C specifically recognizes long uridine tracts, and can thereby repress splicing of exons. This was evident by the ultraviolet crosslinking of the hnRNP C1/C2 tetramer, which suggested that the repressed exons are incorporated into the hnRNP particles (see the paper).

    hnRNP C controls exonisation of <em>Alu</em> elements We later showed (see the paper) that hnRNP C controls the emergence of new exons from Alu elements, which are retrotransposable elements that are specific for primate genomes, and constitute 10% of human genome. hnRNP C represses recognition of cryptic splice sites in Alu elements by displacing the splicing factor U2AF65 from uridine tracts. Loss of hnRNP C leads to formation of thousands of harmful exons, and mutations disrupting hnRNP C binding cause human diseases. Since the repressive function of hnRNP C prevents the damaging effects of immediate Alu exonization, it enables mutations to gradually create Alu-derived exons. This represents an elegant molecular mechanism that could mediate incremental evolution of new cellular functions.

    Image of the decision-making process of the splicesome as it scans the pre-mRNA for exons, and the role of RNA-binding proteins in modulating this process. Understanding how RNPs regulate pre-mRNA processing.
    We use an integrative genomic approach to uncover how RBP regulate their target transcripts. We use methods such as iCLIP to assess where an RBP binds its target transcripts, and integrate this with methods such as RNA-seq that assess how this RBP controls pre-mRNA processing. This approach revealse that most RBPs regulate alternative splicing according to genome-wide positional principles, or RNA splicing maps. For instance, by integrating TIA iCLIP with splicing analysis upon TIA knockdown, we were able to derive nucleotide-resolution RNA splicing maps of TIA proteins. Moreover, we developed software (RNAmotifs) that can derive RNA splicing maps by analysis of multivalent RNA motifs that are often bound by RBPs.

    Understanding the role of RNPs in brain function and disease.
    Alternative splicing can produce several mRNA isoforms from a gene, and these isoforms can change in the human brain during aging or neurodegeneration (click here). In collaboration with the Chris Shaw lab (KCL), we uncovered the regulatory networks controlled by TDP-43 and FUS. Mutations in these two RBPs can cause amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, therefore it is important to understand their functions in the brain. We showed that TDP-43 binds to long clusters of UG-rich RNA motifs to recognise specific sites on pre-mRNAs and thereby regulate splicing. Moreover, TDP-43 increases its interactions with specific non-coding RNAs in diseased brain, click here. Surprisingly, FUS and TDP-43 rarely regulate splicing the same exons. FUS has little specificity for RNA sequence or structure, and binds across the whole pre-mRNA, with enriched binding to introns flanking the regulated exons. Nevertheless, both proteins regulate a functionally coherent set of transcripts, many of which encode proteins implicated in neurodegenerative disorders (click here). For a review of this field, click here