Victoria Portnoy, Szu Hua, Sharon Lin, and Long-Cheng Li
Small activating RNAs (saRNAs) targeting specific promoter regions are able to stimulate gene expression at the transcriptional level, a phenomenon known as RNA activation (RNAa). It is known that RNAa depends on Ago2 and is associated with epigenetic changes at the target promoters. However, the precise molecular mechanism of RNAa remains elusive. Using human CDKN1A (p21) as a model gene, we characterized the molecular nature of RNAa. We show that saRNAs guide Ago2 to and associate with target promoters. saRNA-loaded Ago2 facilitates the assembly of an RNA-induced transcriptional activation (RITA) complex, which, in addition to saRNA-Ago2 complex, includes RHA and CTR9, the latter being a component of the PAF1 complex. RITA interacts with RNA polymerase II to stimulate transcription initiation and productive elongation, accompanied by monoubiquitination of histone 2B. Our results establish the existence of a cellular RNA-guided genome-targeting and transcriptional activation mechanism and provide important new mechanistic insights into the RNAa process.