The protein protectors of fertility

Researchers from Osaka University clarified the interactions of the proteins Tejas (Tej), Vasa (Vas), and Spindle-E (Spn-E) in the formation of cellular compartments known as nuage and the processing of PIWI-interacting RNA (piRNA) precursors in Drosophila melanogaster ovaries. piRNAs help prevent the transmission of genetic mutations through reproductive cells, and insight into the dynamics of piRNA formation and processing may contribute to our understanding of the mechanisms underlying reproductive disorders, including infertility.

Fig. 3
Tej interacts with Spn-E and Vas and has a role in processing piRNA precursors.
In Drosophila germ cells, Spn-E localizes to the nuage in the perinuclear membrane region via the eSRS motif in Tej. In contrast, the Lotus domain of Tej facilitates Vas localization to the nuage. This complex is involved in the processing of piRNA precursors, and the IDR of Tej provides mobility to the Tej–Vas complex in the nuage, contributing to its role as a component of a non-membrane organelle.

Researchers from Osaka University use Drosophila melanogaster to investigate how certain proteins contribute to the formation of a class of RNA critical to protecting the genome


Osaka, Japan – You’re likely familiar with RNA, the molecule that plays an important role in protein production and gene expression control. Perhaps you’re less familiar, however, with PIWI-interacting RNA (piRNA), a special type of RNA that protects the genome from mutations. Now, researchers in Japan have shed light on how these critical molecules are formed by the dynamics of several associated proteins in the germline of the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster.

 In a new study published in the Journal of Cell Biology, researchers from Osaka University have clarified how the proteins Tejas (Tej), Vasa (Vas), and Spindle-E (Spn-E) contribute to the creation of piRNAs, which are found in the gonads and help protect the genome from mutations or deletions caused by transposons that may be passed on through reproductive cells.

 In Drosophila, piRNAs first appear as long sequences, known as precursor transcripts, which are processed in membrane-less cellular compartments called ‘nuage’ and turned into their shorter forms as functional piRNAs. These nuage are composed by the interactions of RNA-processing proteins, PIWI family proteins, and a group of proteins known as the Tudor-domain-containing (Tdrd) proteins. Of those, Tej, a Tdrd protein, has been previously shown to play a key role in the piRNA pathway, with a major reduction in piRNAs observed in the absence of Tej. However, the role that Tej plays in the generation of piRNA is not fully understood. The research team set out to investigate the molecular function of Tej during piRNA biogenesis.

Fig. 1
piRNA biogenesis pathway in the Drosophila germline.
The Drosophila ovary has 16–20 ovarioles containing 14 different developmental stages of egg chambers. The piRNA precursors transcribed in the nucleus are transported to the nuage, which is located on the cytoplasmic side of the nuclear membrane. At the nuage, Tej, Vas, Spn-E, Krinmp, and other proteins accumulate, and Aub and Ago3 cleave piRNA precursors and complementary-sequenced transposons. In the nuage, Tudor domain proteins cooperate with PIWI family proteins, and piRNAs are generated via the ping-pong amplification pathway, which is conjugated with the degradation of transposon transcripts.

“We first evaluated the detailed function of Tej in the Drosophila ovary and confirmed that Tej is involved in processing precursor transcripts with two RNA-processing helicases: Vas and Spn-E in the nuage,” explains lead author of the study Lin Yuxuan. “In the mutant germ cells that lack Tej, we observed that Vas and Spn-E are not properly assembled in the nuage, indicating that Tej plays a critical role in recruiting Vas and Spn-E to the nuage.”

By generating variants of Tej that lack specific regions of the protein, the investigators could identify which areas of Tej are crucial for interacting with Spn-E and modulating the mobility of Vas. They found that one distinct region, termed the ‘Spn-E recruit site’, contributes to the recruitment and maintenance of Spn-E in the nuage. Another distinct region, known as the intrinsically disordered region, affects both the ability of Vas to move within the nuage and the dynamics of other components of the nuage.

“Our study demonstrates that Tej is a key component of nuage formation and piRNA processing,” says senior author Kai Toshie. “By recruiting Vas and Spn-E, Tej facilitates nuage formation, allowing the processing of piRNA precursor transcripts into their mature, functional forms.”

Disruption of piRNA formation is known to cause infertility. The research team’s insight into the formation of nuage and piRNA processing mediated by Tej in Drosophila germline may help to uncover the mechanisms underlying reproductive disorders, including infertility, and may contribute to the development of new fertility drugs.


The article, “Tejas functions as a core component in nuage assembly and precursor processing in Drosophila piRNA biogenesis,” will be published in Journal of Cell Biology at DOI:

Fig. 2
AlphaFold prediction of the interaction regions for Tej–Spn-E proteins.
Heterodimeric structures of Tej (right, red) and Spn-E (left, blue) are predicted using AlphaFold v2.2. The C-terminal conserved region of Spn-E (blue) predicted to interact with Tej-eSRS (red) was experimentally proven in the Drosophila ovary.

About Osaka University

Osaka University was founded in 1931 as one of the seven imperial universities of Japan and is now one of Japan's leading comprehensive universities with a broad disciplinary spectrum. This strength is coupled with a singular drive for innovation that extends throughout the scientific process, from fundamental research to the creation of applied technology with positive economic impacts. Its commitment to innovation has been recognized in Japan and around the world, being named Japan's most innovative university in 2015 (Reuters 2015 Top 100) and one of the most innovative institutions in the world in 2017 (Innovative Universities and the Nature Index Innovation 2017). Now, Osaka University is leveraging its role as a Designated National University Corporation selected by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology to contribute to innovation for human welfare, sustainable development of society, and social transformation.


Published: 09 Aug 2023


Contact details:

Global Strategy Unit

1-1 Yamadaoka, Suita,Osaka 565-0871, Japan

News topics: 
Academic discipline: 
Content type: 
Funding information:

Japan Society for the Promotion of Science
Osaka University Institute for Datability Science