RNAi (RNA interference) has become a powerful tool to determine gene function. Different methods of expressing the short ds (double-stranded) RNA intermediates required for interference in mammalian systems have been developed, including the introduction of si (short interfering) RNAs by direct transfection or driven from transfected plasmids or lentiviral vectors encoding sh (short hairpin) RNAs. Although RNAi relies upon a high degree of specificity, recent findings suggest that off-target non-specific effects can be encountered. We found that transfection of siRNAs can results in an interferon-mediated activation of the JAK/STAT (Janus kinase/signal transducer and activator of transcription) pathway and global up-regulation of interferon-stimulated genes. This effect is mediated in part by the dsRNA-dependent protein kinase PKR, as this kinase is activated by the 21 bp siRNA, and is required in response to the siRNAs. However, the transcription factor IRF3 (interferon-regulatory factor 3) is also activated by siRNA as a primary response, resulting in the stimulation of genes independent of an interferon response. In cells deficient in IRF3, this response is blunted, but can be restored by re-introduction of IRF3. Thus siRNAs induce complex signalling responses in target cells, leading to effects beyond the selective silencing of specific genes.

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