piRNAs are animal-specific small RNAs usually restricted to the germline and required for fertility. In the absence of piRNAs, the genomic integrity of the germline is compromised and consequently piRNAs have been called “guardians of the genome”. One major function of piRNAs in all animals is to silence transposable (mobile) elements thereby preventing them from inducing detrimental mutations that are transmitted to the offspring.
In 2008, the Miska lab identified the piRNAs of Caenorhabditis elegans and demonstrated that Piwi proteins and piRNAs are important for germline development and fertility in the nematode. Subsequently, we identified the targets of piRNAs and shed light on the molecular mechanism of target silencing. In addition, we have been investigating how piRNAs are generated in the germline, how the piRNA pathway responds to foreign DNA/RNA and how the pathway is evolving.
Making use of our expertise in small RNAs in C. elegans, we are now focussing our research on elucidating the biological and molecular functions of piRNAs in vertebrates, especially in mammals.