During the past several years, it has become clear that small RNAs guard germ cell genomes from the activity of mobile genetic elements. Indeed, in mammals, a class of small RNAs, known as Piwi-interacting RNAs (piRNAs), forms an innate immune system that discriminates transposons from endogenous genes and selectively silences the former. piRNAs enforce silencing by directing transposon DNA methylation during male germ cell development. As such, piRNAs represent perhaps the only currently known sequence-specific factor for deposition of methylcytosine in mammals. The three mammalian Piwi proteins Miwi2, Mili, and Miwi are required at different stages of germ cell development. Moreover, distinct classes of piRNAs are expressed in developmental waves, with particular generative loci and different sequence content distinguishing piRNAs populations in embryonic germ cells from those that appear during meiosis. Although our understanding of Piwi proteins and piRNA biology have deepened substantially during the last several years, major gaps still exist in our understanding of these enigmatic RNA species.
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