Exosomes not enough – intercellular mRNA transfer requires direct cell-to-cell contact

Transfer of β-actin–MBS mRNA between donor and acceptor MEFs

RNAs have been shown to undergo transfer between mammalian cells, although the mechanism behind this phenomenon and its overall importance to cell physiology is not well understood. Numerous publications have suggested that RNAs (microRNAs and incomplete mRNAs) undergo transfer via extracellular vesicles (e.g., exosomes). However, in contrast to a diffusion-based transfer mechanism, a team of researchers from the Weizmann Institute of Science and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine found that full-length mRNAs undergo direct cell-cell transfer via cytoplasmic extensions characteristic of membrane nanotubes (mNTs), which connect donor and acceptor cells. By employing a simple coculture experimental model and using single-molecule imaging, they provide quantitative data showing that mRNAs are transferred between cells in contact. Examples of mRNAs that undergo transfer include those encoding GFP, mouse β-actin, and human Cyclin D1, BRCA1, MT2A, and HER2. The research team shows that intercellular mRNA transfer occurs in all coculture models tested (e.g., between primary cells, immortalized cells, and in cocultures of immortalized human and murine cells). Rapid mRNA transfer is dependent upon actin but is independent of de novo protein synthesis and is modulated by stress conditions and gene-expression levels. Hence, this work supports the hypothesis that full-length mRNAs undergo transfer between cells through a refined structural connection. Importantly, unlike the transfer of miRNA or RNA fragments, this process of communication transfers genetic information that could potentially alter the acceptor cell proteome. This phenomenon may prove important for the proper development and functioning of tissues as well as for host-parasite or symbiotic interactions.

Haimovich G, Ecker CM, Dunagin MC, Eggan E, Raj A, Gerst JE, Singer RH. (2017) Intercellular mRNA trafficking via membrane nanotube-like extensions in mammalian cells. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA [Epub ahead of print]. [article]

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