For over 30 years, researchers have taken advantage of genetic balancers and forward genetic screens to isolate lethal mutations, which have been studied to identify essential genes in C. elegans. Using traditional genetic methods, such as genetic mapping, complementation tests, and transgenic rescue assays, many essential genes have been successfully identified. However, to pinpoint a specific essential gene the involved experiments are usually labor intensive and time consuming. Nowadays, genetic methods combined with whole genome sequencing (WGS) and bioinformatics analysis provide an effective approach for the molecular identification of essential genes. In my thesis I successfully identified 64 new essential genes with 107 lethal mutations in genomic regions of C. elegans of around 14 Mb from Chromosome III(mid) and Chromosome V(left), by combining genetic mapping, Illumina sequencing, bioinformatics analyses, and experimental validation. Most of these genes have multiple recovered mutant alleles. Of these 64 genes 5 have new alleles identified, which had not been previously studied by RNA interference depletion. Furthermore, by investigating the locations of lethal missense mutations in essential genes, I have identified five novel protein functional domains. Functional characterization of the identified essential genes shows that most of them are enzymes, including helicases, tRNA synthetase, and kinases. There are also ribosomal proteins. Gene Ontology functional annotation also indicates that essential genes tend to execute enzyme and nucleic acid binding activities during fundamental processes, such as intracellular protein synthesis. Essential gene analysis shows that compared to non-essential genes, essential genes have fewer paralogs, and encode proteins that are in protein interaction hubs. Essential genes are also more abundantly and consistently expressed over all developmental stages than non-essential genes. All these essential genes traits in C. elegans are consistent with those of human disease genes. Unsurprisingly, most (90%) human orthologs of essential genes in this study are related to human diseases. Therefore, functional characterization of essential genes underlines their importance as proxies for understanding the biological functions of human disease genes.
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Thesis advisor: Chen, Nansheng
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