Small RNAs Are Implicated in Regulation of Gene and Transposable Element Expression in the Protist Trichomonas vaginalis

Sally D. Warring, Frances Blow, Grace Avecilla, Jordan C. Orosco, Steven A. Sullivan, Jane M. Carlton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Trichomonas vaginalis is the causative agent of trichomoniasis, the most prevalent nonviral sexually transmitted infection worldwide. Repetitive elements, including transposable elements (TEs) and virally derived repeats, comprise more than half of the ∼160-Mb T. vaginalis genome. An intriguing question is how the parasite controls its potentially lethal complement of mobile elements, which can disrupt transcription of protein-coding genes and genome functions. In this study, we generated high-throughput RNA sequencing (RNA-Seq) and small RNA-Seq data sets in triplicate for the T. vaginalis G3 reference strain and characterized the mRNA and small RNA populations and their mapping patterns along all six chromosomes. Mapping the RNA-Seq transcripts to the genome revealed that the majority of genes predicted within repetitive elements are not expressed. Interestingly, we identified a novel species of small RNA that maps bidirectionally along the chromosomes and is correlated with reduced protein-coding gene expression and reduced RNA-Seq coverage in repetitive elements. This novel small RNA family may play a regulatory role in gene and repetitive element expression. Our results identify a possible small RNA pathway mechanism by which the parasite regulates expression of genes and TEs and raise intriguing questions as to the role repeats may play in shaping T. vaginalis genome evolution and the diversity of small RNA pathways in general. IMPORTANCE Trichomoniasis, caused by the protozoan Trichomonas vaginalis, is the most common nonviral sexually transmitted infection in humans. The millions of cases each year have sequelae that may include complications during pregnancy and increased risk of HIV infection. Given its evident success in this niche, it is paradoxical that T. vaginalis harbors in its genome thousands of transposable elements that have the potential to be extremely detrimental to normal genomic function. In many organisms, transposon expression is regulated by the activity of endogenously expressed short (∼21 to 35 nucleotides [nt]) small RNA molecules that effect gene silencing by targeting mRNAs for degradation or by recruiting epigenetic silencing machinery to locations in the genome. Our research has identified small RNA molecules correlated with reduced expression of T. vaginalis genes and transposons. This suggests that a small RNA pathway is a major contributor to gene expression patterns in the parasite and opens up new avenues for investigation into small RNA biogenesis, function, and diversity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-9
Number of pages9
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2021


  • Trichomonas vaginalis
  • small RNA
  • transposable element
  • Trichomonas vaginalis/genetics
  • Genome, Protozoan
  • Epigenesis, Genetic
  • Humans
  • RNA, Small Cytoplasmic/genetics
  • DNA Transposable Elements/genetics
  • Gene Expression Regulation
  • Phylogeny
  • Sequence Analysis, RNA
  • High-Throughput Nucleotide Sequencing

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Molecular Biology
  • Microbiology


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