Date Available


Year of Publication


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation




Microbiology, Immunology, and Molecular Genetics

First Advisor

Dr. Martha L. Peterson


Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is the most common form of primary liver cancer, ranking the sixth most common cancer and third most common cause of cancer mortality worldwide. Alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) is a plasma protein that is highly expressed in the fetal liver and shut off after birth. AFP expression is elevated in regenerating adult liver and HCC and has been used extensively as a diagnostic marker of liver cancer. We have been studying mouse liver gene regulation to better understand mechanisms by which changes in gene expression contribute to liver development, homeostasis and disease. Zinc Fingers and Homeoboxes 2 (Zhx2) has been identified as a repressor of AFP, but the mechanism of this regulation remains unknown. Interestingly, all targets of Zhx2 that have been identified to date, including H19, Glypican 3, Elovl3 and Cytochrome P450 (CYP) genes, are also known to be misregulated in HCC. Thus, a better understanding of the mechanism by which these genes are regulated by Zhx2 will likely lead to new insights into gene regulation during HCC progression.

Antisense transcripts belong to a diverse class of long noncoding RNA molecules > 200 nucleotides in length that often structurally resemble mRNAs, but do not encode proteins. While studying AFP mRNA regulation by Zhx2 in the mouse, our lab identified novel antisense AFP (asAFP) RNA transcripts that partially overlap the 3’ half of the mouse AFP gene. ENCODE tracks of ChIP-seq data for histone modifications in mouse liver show that the genomic region around the 5’ end of asAFP RNA has peaks for marks associated with promoters and enhancers. To better understand asAFP regulation, I identified the asAFP RNA 5’ end and the promoter elements that drive transcription. asAFP RNAs are ~5kb alternatively spliced, mainly cytoplasmic transcripts containing 2-4 exons. These transcripts were also detected in adult mouse liver RNA-seq data. asAFP is likely a noncoding RNA because it contains several small open reading frames that are 98 aa or smaller with no known functional domains or homology to known proteins. There is no evidence for similar transcripts in human liver. The abundance of asAFP RNA inversely correlates with AFP mRNA levels during postnatal liver development. Normally, asAFP RNA levels are high and AFP mRNA levels are low in the adult mouse liver. However, in the absence of Zhx2, AFP mRNA levels are higher and asAFP RNA levels are reduced, suggesting asAFP may be involved in the developmental regulation of AFP.

Antisense transcripts function through a variety of mechanisms to positively or negatively regulate the expression of target genes. To explore the role of asAFP RNA in AFP gene regulation, I expressed segments of asAFP RNA in a mouse liver cell line and measured endogenous AFP mRNA levels. My data revealed that all segments of asAFP repressed endogenous AFP mRNA in trans. To determine the mechanism by which asAFP RNA regulates AFP, I expressed asAFP segments that overlapped only with exons or introns of AFP. The asAFP segments that overlap with the exons showed greater repression of endogenous AFP mRNA levels than those overlapping with intronic sequences. Additionally, I considered whether asAFP RNA repression of AFP mRNA may involve RNA editing by Adenosine deaminase acting on RNA (ADAR). ADARs convert adenosine to inosine in double-stranded RNAs that results in RNA degradation. My data indicate that AFP and asAFP dsRNA is not extensively edited, suggesting ADAR mediated decay is not involved in the regulation of AFP mRNA expression. However, further studies are required to determine the mechanism of cytoplasmic AFP mRNA degradation. Together, my data characterizes the transcriptional regulation of novel mouse asAFP transcripts and provides a model system to investigate how these transcripts regulate AFP mRNA through RNA-RNA interaction.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)