Extensive localization of long noncoding RNAs to the cytosol and mono- and polyribosomal complexes
© van Heesch et al.; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2014
Received: 28 October 2013
Accepted: 7 January 2014
Published: 7 January 2014
Long noncoding RNAs (lncRNAs) form an abundant class of transcripts, but the function of the majority of them remains elusive. While it has been shown that some lncRNAs are bound by ribosomes, it has also been convincingly demonstrated that these transcripts do not code for proteins. To obtain a comprehensive understanding of the extent to which lncRNAs bind ribosomes, we performed systematic RNA sequencing on ribosome-associated RNA pools obtained through ribosomal fractionation and compared the RNA content with nuclear and (non-ribosome bound) cytosolic RNA pools.
The RNA composition of the subcellular fractions differs significantly from each other, but lncRNAs are found in all locations. A subset of specific lncRNAs is enriched in the nucleus but surprisingly the majority is enriched in the cytosol and in ribosomal fractions. The ribosomal enriched lncRNAs include H19 and TUG1.
Most studies on lncRNAs have focused on the regulatory function of these transcripts in the nucleus. We demonstrate that only a minority of all lncRNAs are nuclear enriched. Our findings suggest that many lncRNAs may have a function in cytoplasmic processes, and in particular in ribosome complexes.
The importance of noncoding RNA transcripts for key cellular functions has been well established by studies on for example XIST, which acts in X-chromosome silencing, and TERC, which functions in telomeric maintenance. Genomic studies performed in the last decade have shown that these are likely not isolated examples as many more long non protein-coding transcripts were identified [3–5]. Although it remains to be demonstrated that all of these transcripts have specific functions , functional studies showing the importance of long noncoding RNAs (lncRNAs) as regulators in cellular pathways are accumulating rapidly (for example, [7–12]). However, the function and the mechanisms of action of the majority of lncRNAs are still unexplored .
Cellular location is an important determinant in understanding the functional roles of lncRNAs. Subcellular RNA sequencing (RNA-seq) has been performed to explore the differences between nuclear, chromatin-associated and cytoplasmic transcript content in several cell lines  and macrophages . Derrien et al.  specifically estimated the relative abundance of lncRNAs in the nucleus versus the cytosol and concluded that 17% of the tested lncRNAs were enriched in the nucleus and 4% in the cytoplasm. This is in line with the function of some individual lncRNAs, such as NEAT1 and MALAT1, which were shown to be involved in nuclear structure formation and gene expression regulation [7, 8]. However, it has been argued that relative enrichment does not mean that the absolute number of transcripts for each lncRNA is also higher in the nucleus . Some lncRNAs were enriched in the cytoplasm and ribosome profiling demonstrated that part of the cytoplasmic lncRNAs is bound by ribosomes . More detailed characterization of the ribosome profiling data showed that ribosomal occupation of lncRNAs does not match with specific marks of translation .
While these results suggest diverse roles of lncRNAs in different cellular compartments and biological processes, comprehensive knowledge on the relative abundances of lncRNAs in ribosomes, the cytosol and the nucleus is currently still lacking. Moreover, as ribosomal profiling measures single sites in RNA molecules that are occupied by ribosomes, this technique does not yield information on the number of ribosomes that are present per single (physical) lncRNA transcript . In a different method, named ribosomal fractionation, a cytosolic size separation is performed that results in the isolation of translation complexes based on the amount of ribosomes associated per transcript . This method has been used in combination with microarrays to analyze ribosomal density on protein-coding transcripts [20–22] but not on lncRNAs.
Here we perform subcellular RNA-seq on nuclei, cytosol and mono- and polyribosomes separated by ribosomal fractionation. Our data show relative enrichment of specific lncRNAs in the nucleus, but also demonstrate that most lncRNAs are strongly enriched in the cytosol and in ribosomal fractions.
Nuclear, cytosolic and ribosomal fractions differ in transcript content
Strand-specific RNA-seq was performed after rRNA depletion on all the subcellular samples and for each we obtained at least six million aligned reads. The GENCODE annotation  of coding and noncoding transcripts was used to establish the read counts per gene (Additional file 2). In our data analyses, we considered three types of transcripts: protein-coding transcripts; small noncoding RNAs (sncRNAs), which included small nuclear RNAs (snRNAs) and small nucleolar RNAs (snoRNAs); and lncRNAs, which included antisense transcripts, long intergenic noncoding RNAs and processed transcripts (these were transcripts that did not contain an open reading frame (ORF) and could not be placed in any of the other categories) . We left out some small RNAs such as miRNAs, because these were not captured in our experimental setup. Also, to prevent false assignments of sequencing reads to noncoding transcripts, we did not consider lncRNAs in which the annotation partially overlapped with protein-coding transcripts on the same strand. We selected expressed transcripts using a stringent threshold to allow us to reliably detect quantitative differences. Our expressed transcript set contained 7,734 genes including 7,206 protein-coding genes, 152 lncRNAs (46 antisense transcripts, 71 long intergenic noncoding transcripts and 35 processed transcripts) and 376 sncRNAs (134 snoRNAs and 242 snRNAs).
Combined, these analyses show that subcellular RNA samples have very different compositions and that lncRNAs are found in each of the subcellular RNA samples.
Long noncoding RNAs are primarily enriched in the cytosol and in the ribosomal fractions
Overall, we consider clusters I, II and III as enriched in the nucleus; IV and V as enriched in the ribosome-free cytosol; and VI, VII, VIII, IX and X as enriched in the ribosomes. The distribution of protein-coding genes and sncRNAs among the clusters was largely as expected (Figure 4B). Protein-coding transcripts were present in all of the clusters, but the majority (60%) was found in the ribosomal-enriched clusters. Nonetheless, 14% of the protein-coding transcripts were found in the nuclear clusters and depleted from ribosomes, suggesting that this large part of the protein-coding transcripts is not actively translated or has a rapid turn-over rate in the cytosol. sncRNAs were found only in the nuclear and ribosome-free cytosolic clusters and not in the ribosomal clusters, which matched expectations and thus demonstrated the effectiveness of the fractionation. The majority of the sncRNAs could be found in cluster III, showing high levels both in the nucleus and free in the cytosol, suggesting that many of these small RNAs shuttle between nucleus and cytoplasm.
The most notable result was the distribution of the lncRNAs among the different clusters. In line with previous analyses , 17% of the lncRNAs were found in one of the nuclear clusters (Figure 4B). However, in contrast to previous studies, a relatively large part of the lncRNAs (30%) was located in clusters enriched in the ribosome-free cytosol and a striking 38% was present in ribosome-enriched clusters. As noted above, the transcript levels determined by RNA-seq represent which part of the total RNA samples can be assigned to each specific transcript. These results thus show that many individual lncRNAs (38% of the expressed lncRNAs) make up a larger part of specific ribosomal fractions than of the nuclear sample.
Although the correlations between ribosomal fractions were high (Figure 2A), these clustering results highlight the transcripts that are differential across the ribosomal samples. Previous studies have shown that many protein-coding transcripts are not evenly distributed among the ribosomal fractions, but rather show enrichment for a specific number of ribosomes [20, 21]. The coding sequence length was shown to be a major determinant of the modular amount of ribosomes per transcript. In our data, the total transcript length of protein-coding transcripts in the five ribosomal clusters also increased with increasing numbers of ribosomes present (Figure 4C). For lncRNAs, we could determine such a relationship only between cluster VI (80S and two ribosomes) and VII (three and four ribosomes), because the number of lncRNAs in the clusters with a higher number of ribosomes was too low (Figure 4A). lncRNAs in cluster VII (three and four ribosomes) had a longer transcript length, longer maximum putative ORF length and more start codons than the lncRNAs in cluster VI (80S and two ribosomes) (Figure 4C and Additional file 8). However, the maximum ORF lengths of the lncRNAs were much shorter than the coding sequence length of the protein-coding genes in the same cluster, so these ORF lengths likely do not determine the number of ribosomes associated with a lncRNA.
Combined, these analyses showed that many lncRNAs were enriched in specific subcellular fractions. Although some lncRNAs were enriched in the nucleus, many more were enriched in the cytosolic and ribosomal fractions.
Known long noncoding RNAs are enriched in different ribosomal fractions
In the ribosome-free cytosolic sample we found enrichment of lncRNAs that are known components of cytosolic complexes, for example RPPH1 and RN7SL1. RPPH1 is part of ribonuclease P  and RN7SL1 is part of the signal recognition particle that mediates co-translational insertion of secretory proteins into the lumen of the endoplasmic reticulum [29, 30]. In addition, we also found many unstudied lncRNAs in the free cytosolic fraction. In cluster V, which showed enrichment in the 40S/60S sample, we found the lncRNA DANCR (Figure 5). DANCR was recently shown to be involved in retaining an undifferentiated progenitor state in somatic tissue cells  and osteoblast differentiation . The exact mechanisms through which DANCR acts are unknown, but our data suggest a role for DANCR predominantly outside of the nucleus. One of the most abundant lncRNAs in our data was the evolutionary conserved and imprinted H19. This transcript is a strong regulator of cellular growth and overexpression of H19 contributes to tumor initiation as well as progression, making it a frequently studied noncoding RNA in cancer [9, 32]. An enrichment of H19 in the cytoplasm over the nucleus has previously been observed . Here, we found only moderate levels of H19 RNA in the nucleus and ribosome-free cytosol, but very high levels of H19 RNA associated with ribosomes (Figure 5). This predominant association with ribosomes suggests a possible role for H19 in the regulation of the translation machinery and, more specifically, in polysomal complexes.
CASC7 was the only lncRNA that was enriched in the sample with seven or more ribosomes. Even though CASC7 has been identified as a cancer susceptibility candidate, not much is known about this transcript. Our data indicate that it is sequestered to large polysomal complexes and it may thus function in regulation of translation.
Using quantitative PCR, we confirmed the enrichment of NEAT1 and MALAT1 in the nucleus and the enrichment of TUG1 and H19 in ribosomes (Additional file 9).
These results reveal the subcellular enrichment of known and unknown lncRNAs and suggest that many lncRNAs function primarily outside the nucleus.
We performed transcriptome analyses on subcellular samples of the human cell line LS-174 T-pTER-β-catenin and found that the lncRNAs that were expressed in these cells were present in all subcellular fractions, but the majority of the expressed lncRNAs were enriched in the cytosol and in ribosomes. Our data partially contradict an earlier study in which most lncRNAs were found enriched in the nucleus, compared to the cytoplasm . This discrepancy could have resulted from the use of different cell types, but may also have partially resulted from measuring and comparing relative enrichments between multiple samples. Measuring the whole cytoplasm would thus result in different enrichment values compared to analysis of a specific subset of the cytoplasm, such as the ribosomes.
We are not the first to find lncRNAs associated with ribosomes. Ribosome profiling in mouse embryonic stem cells also showed examples of these interactions and our results overlap with the results from that study . For example, both our work and work from Ingolia et al. pinpoint the lncRNA NEAT1 as not highly associated with ribosomes. The results for MALAT1 are more intricate, as we found that MALAT1 was strongly enriched in the nucleus, but but previous work showed binding of ribosomes to the 5-part of this lncRNA [16, 33]. It is possible that a small proportion of the MALAT1 transcripts is bound by ribosomes. It is also likely that ribosomal association with lncRNAs is specific to cell type, growth condition and organism.
Our data add significant insight into ribosomal association of lncRNAs, because ribosomal profiling and ribosomal fractionation provide different, yet complementary, information. In ribosome profiling, specific binding sites of ribosomes are measured and the amount of binding is estimated based on the total amount of reads in the ribosome-bound versus the total RNA sample. By applying ribosomal fractionation we can directly measure the amount of ribosomes associated per lncRNA. Moreover, we measured the full range of subcellular samples including free cytosolic and nuclear RNA in one analysis. From our data we can conclude that many lncRNAs are found in complexes that contain multiple ribosomes. In addition, the enrichment of lncRNAs in ribosomal fractions shows that many lncRNAs make up a relatively larger part of the ribosomal samples than of the nuclear sample. This did not change when sncRNAs were excluded from the analyses. It should be noted that the identification of the ribosomes was based on size fractionation and RNA content. We can therefore not fully exclude that the lncRNAs are associating with protein complexes of sizes similar to the specific amounts of ribosomes . However, these thus far unknown complexes would have to be present in such high quantities that the result is an enrichment of the associated transcripts equal to the enrichment of protein-coding transcripts. Moreover, we found lncRNAs in different ribosomal fractions, so the alternative explanation would require the involvement of multiple different protein complexes.
So why do lncRNAs associate with ribosomes? The possibility that these lncRNAs all code for proteins was recently eliminated by in-depth comparison of ribosome occupancy around translation termination codons . lncRNAs did not show a steep drop in ribosomal binding after the translation termination codons (determined by the ribosome release score), as was seen for protein-coding genes. However, that does not exclude the possibility that ribosomes spuriously bind initiation codons in lncRNAs. In our data, the amount of ribosomes per lncRNA correlates with lncRNA length, maximum ORF length and the number of ORFs present per lncRNA, but those three factors are not independent of each other.
It is possible that one of the processes that keep lncRNAs at ribosomes is nonsense-mediated decay (NMD). NMD functions via ribosomal binding and has previously been described as a possible breakdown route of the noncoding RNA GAS5. However, if NMD of a transcript results in such strong enrichment in the ribosomal fractions as observed in our experiments, it would mean that under standard culturing conditions a very significant portion of transcripts at ribosomes are engaged in NMD and not in active translation.
Arguably the most attractive hypothesis is that lncRNAs have functional roles in regulating translation. This could be a general phenomenon in which the lncRNAs occupy the ribosomes to keep them in a poised state and inhibit the energetically expensive process of translation until specific stimulatory cues are received. Alternatively, lncRNAs could regulate translation of specific protein-coding transcripts, for example by sequence-specific pairing. Indeed, recent data show that at least some lncRNAs associate with ribosomes to exert such a function . For another class of noncoding RNAs, the microRNAs, similar roles have also been described . One specific lncRNA, the antisense lncRNA of Uchl1, has been shown to regulate the association of sense Uchl1 with active polysomes in mice . This regulatory function was partially established via the sequence homology between the lncRNA and the target mRNA. Translation regulatory mechanisms based on sequence homology have also been found for noncoding transcripts in bacteria . Of the 25 antisense lncRNAs expressed in our data, only three pairs had both partners expressed and showed subcellular co-localization: DYNLL1 and DYNLL1-AS1, PCBP1 and PCBP1-AS1, and WAC and WAC-AS1 (Additional file 10). The fact that we found so few co-localizing sense-antisense pairs makes it unlikely that a similar mechanism is abundant in the human system studied here.
Our data show that different subcellular compartments differ significantly in RNA content, especially when the nucleus is compared to the ribosomal fractions. The lncRNAs expressed in this cell line are found in all subcellular samples and show an intricate correlation profile to protein-coding transcripts. Most lncRNAs are enriched in the cytosolic (free and the 40S/60S) samples and in the subcellular samples containing one, two or three ribosomes. The fact that lncRNAs show enrichment in diverse subcellular fractions and not only the nucleus suggests that lncRNAs may have a wider range of functions than currently anticipated. Our study provides insight into this diversity and our data can serve as a valuable resource for the functional characterization of individual lncRNAs.
Materials and methods
All next-generation sequencing data used in this study can be downloaded from EMBL European Nucleotide Archive [PRJEB5049].
Cell culture and media
Human colon cancer cells carrying a doxycycline-inducible short hairpin RNA against B-catenin (LS-174 T-pTER-β-catenin ) were cultured in 1X DMEM + GIBCO GlutaMAX™ (Life Technologies, Carlsbad, CA, USA) supplemented with 10% fetal calf serum and penicillin streptomycin. Cells were harvested during the exponential growth phase.
All steps of the mono- and polyribosome profiling protocol were performed at 4°C or on ice. Gradients of 17% to 50% sucrose (11 mL) in gradient buffer (110 mM KAc, 20 mM MgAc and 10 mM HEPES pH 7.6) were poured the evening before use. Three replicates of 15 cm dishes with LS-174 T-pTER-β-catenin cells were lysed in polyribosome lysis buffer (110 mM KAc, 20 mM MgAc, 10 mM HEPES, pH 7.6, 100 mM KCl, 10 mM MgCl, 0.1% NP-40, freshly added 2 mM DTT and 40 U/mL RNasin (Promega, Madison, WI, USA)) with help of a Dounce tissue grinder (Wheaton Science Products, Millville, NJ, USA). Lysed samples were centrifuged at 1200 g for 10 min to remove debris and loaded onto the sucrose gradients. The gradients were ultra-centrifuged for 2 h at 120,565 g in an SW41 Ti rotor (Beckman Coulter, Indianapolis, IN, USA). The gradients were displaced into a UA6 absorbance reader (Teledyne ISCO, Lincoln, NE, USA) using a syringe pump (Brandel, Gaithersburg, MD, USA) containing 60% sucrose. Absorbance was recorded at an optical density of 254 nm. Fractions were collected using a Foxy Jr Fraction Collector (Teledyne ISCO). Corresponding fractions from each of the three replicates were merged prior to RNA isolation.
Pelleted nuclei of LS-174 T-pTER-β-catenin cells were obtained by centrifugation at 1200 g after whole-cell lysis prior to ribosome fractionation (see previous section). To exclude the presence of rough endoplasmic reticulum and thus validate the purity of the isolated nuclei, nuclear staining and imaging were performed (Additional file 1).
RNA sequencing library preparation
Total RNA was isolated from purified nuclei using the TRIzol® reagent (#15596-026, Invitrogen, Life Technologies). RNA derived from triplicate mono- and polyribosome fractionation experiments was purified using TRIzol® LS reagent (#10296-028, Invitrogen, Life Technologies). Isolated RNA from the pooled triplicate fractions corresponded to the (A1 + 2) non-ribosome bound RNA, (B1) 40S subunit, (B2) 60S subunit, (C) 80S ribosome, (D) 2 ribosomes, (E) 3 ribosomes, (F) 4 ribosomes, (G) 5 ribosomes and (H) 6 ribosomes and (I) more than 6 ribosomes (Figure 1). For RNA-seq, RNA derived from A1 + 2 (non-ribosome bound RNA) and B1 + B2 (individual ribosomal subunits) was pooled prior to library preparation. RNA-seq libraries were prepared from rRNA-depleted RNA (Ribo-Zero™ Magnetic Gold Kit for Human/Mouse/Rat (MRZG12324, Epicentre®, Madison, WI, USA)) using the SOLiD™ Total RNA-seq kit (#4445374, Life Technologies). All libraries were sequenced on the SOLiD™ 5500 Wildfire system (40 bp fragment reads).
RNA-seq reads were mapped using Burrows-Wheeler Aligner  (BWA-0.5.9) (settings: -c -l 25 -k 2 -n 10) onto the human reference genome hg19. Only uniquely mapped, non-duplicate reads were considered for further analyses. Reads that mapped to exons were used to determine the total read counts per gene. Exon positions were based on the GENCODE v18 annotation . The polyribosomal samples (from two to seven or more associated ribosomes) yielded 13 to 32 million reads. For the non-polyribosomal samples (nuclear, free cytosolic, combined 40S and 60S, and 80S (monosomes)), data from three sequencing lanes (technical replicates) were merged yielding 6 to 64 million reads. Data analysis was performed on the genes with GENCODE gene_type: protein coding, antisense, processed transcript, long intergenic noncoding RNA and snRNA/snoRNAs. Filtering was performed on the read count per gene over all samples combined. The per transcript sum of the sequencing reads in all samples showed a bimodal distribution (Additional file 11). Based on these data we used a total read count threshold of 2,500 per transcript to select the expressed genes. Genes with total read count below 2,500 were filtered out, leaving 7,734 genes for further analysis. Subsequently, normalization was performed using the DEseq  to correct for library size and technical biases. Gene clustering was performed using a model-based clustering approach with the R package HTSCluster . The protein coding-lncRNA correlation matrix (Figure 3) was calculated using Spearman rank correlation. The matrix was visualized after hierarchical clustering using Euclidean distance with complete linkage. Median transcript length and coding sequence length were calculated for the protein-coding genes using annotation from Ensembl. The maximum lncRNA ORFs were predicted using a custom Perl script aimed at finding reading frames with in-frame START and STOP codons, without intervening in-frame STOP codons.
Quantitative PCR analysis
Quantitative PCR analysis was performed on cDNA derived from total RNA of cytosolic, nuclear and pooled polyribosomal RNA. The RT reaction was performed on 1 μg of total RNA using oligo d(T) primers and the high capacity cDNA reverse transcription kit (Life Technologies, #4368814). Three primer sets were designed per lncRNA. Quantitative PCR reactions were performed in 20 μl reactions using 2 ng of cDNA and iQ™ SYBR® Green Supermix (Bio-Rad, Hercules, CA, USA, #170-8880) on a MyIQ2 Real-time PCR detection system (Bio-Rad).
Counts per million
Long noncoding RNA
Nonsense mediated decay
Open reading frame
Polymerase chain reaction
Small noncoding RNA
Small nucleolar RNA
Small nuclear RNA.
EC acknowledges funding from NWO TOP grant (700.58.303), the NGI-NBIC program and the NGI-NCSB program. MS acknowledges funding from the NWO Vernieuwingsimpuls program (grant number 863.10.007).
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