On the evolution of microRNAs and their targets

A couple of recent papers from the world of plant science.  As always, enjoy.

Evolution of Arabidopsis thaliana microRNAs from random sequences:

One mechanism for the origin of new plant microRNAs (miRNAs) is from inverted duplications of transcribed genes. However, even though many young MIRNA genes have recently been identified in Arabidopsis thaliana, only a subset shows evidence for having evolved by this route. We propose that the hundreds of thousands of partially self-complementary foldback sequences found in a typical plant genome provide an alternative path for miRNA evolution. Our genome-wide analyses of young MIRNA genes suggest that some arose from DNA that either has self-complementarity by chance or that represents a highly eroded inverted duplication. These observations are compatible with the idea that, following capture of transcriptional regulatory sequences, random foldbacks can occasionally spawn new miRNAs. Subsequent stabilization through coevolution with initially fortuitous targets may lead to fixation of a small subset of these proto-miRNA genes.

Selection and mutation on microRNA target sequences during rice evolution (this one is open access):


MicroRNAs (miRNAs) posttranscriptionally down-regulate gene expression by binding target mRNAs. Analysis of the evolution of miRNA binding sites is helpful in understanding the co-evolution between miRNAs and their targets. To understand this process in plants a comparative analysis of miRNA-targeted duplicated gene pairs derived from a well-documented whole genome duplication (WGD) event in combination with a population genetics study of six experimentally validated miRNA binding sites in rice (O. sativa) was carried out.


Of the 1,331 pairs of duplicate genes from the WGD, 41 genes (29 pairs) were computationally predicted to be miRNA targets. Sequence substitution analysis indicated that the synonymous substitution rate was significantly lower in the miRNA binding sites than their 5′ and 3′ flanking regions. Of the 29 duplicated gene pairs, 17 have only one paralog been targeted by a miRNA. This could be due to either gain of a miRNA binding site after the WGD or because one of the duplicated genes has escaped from being a miRNA target after the WGD (loss of miRNA binding site). These possibilities were distinguished by separating miRNAs conserved in both dicots and monocot plants from rice-specific miRNAs and by phylogenetic analysis of miRNA target gene families. The gain/loss rate of miRNA binding sites was estimated to be 3.0 × 10-9 gain/loss per year. Most (70.6%) of the gains/losses were due to nucleotide mutation. By analysis of cultivated (O. sativa; n = 30) and wild (O. rufipogon; n = 15) rice populations, no segregating site was observed in six miRNA binding sites whereas 0.12–0.20 SNPs per 21-nt or 1.53–1.80 × 10-3 of the average pairwise nucleotide diversity (π) were found in their flanking regions.


Both molecular evolution and population genetics support the hypothesis that conservation of miRNA binding sites is maintained by purifying selection through elimination of deleterious alleles. Nucleotide mutations play a major role in the gain/loss of miRNA binding sites during evolution.


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