piRNAs Can Trigger a Multigenerational Epigenetic Memory in the Germline of C. elegans
Transgenerational effects have wide-ranging implications for human health, biological adaptation, and evolution; however, their mechanisms and biology remain poorly understood. Here, we demonstrate that a germline nuclear small RNA/chromatin pathway can maintain stable inheritance for many generations when triggered by a piRNA-dependent foreign RNA response in C. elegans. Using forward genetic screens and candidate approaches, we find that a core set of nuclear RNAi and chromatin factors is required for multigenerational inheritance of environmental RNAi and piRNA silencing. These include a germline-specific nuclear Argonaute HRDE1/WAGO-9, a HP1 ortholog HPL-2, and two putative histone methyltransferases, SET-25 and SET-32. piRNAs can trigger highly stable long-term silencing lasting at least 20 generations. Once established, this long-term memory becomes independent of the piRNA trigger but remains dependent on the nuclear RNAi/chromatin pathway. Our data present a multigenerational epigenetic inheritance mechanism induced by piRNAs.