Evidence for a microRNA expansion in the bilaterian ancestor.
Prochnik SE., Rokhsar DS., Aboobaker AA.
Understanding how animal complexity has arisen and identifying the key genetic components of this process is a central goal of evolutionary developmental biology. The discovery of microRNAs (miRNAs) as key regulators of development has identified a new set of candidates for this role. microRNAs are small noncoding RNAs that regulate tissue-specific or temporal gene expression through base pairing with target mRNAs. The full extent of the evolutionary distribution of miRNAs is being revealed as more genomes are scrutinized. To explore the evolutionary origins of metazoan miRNAs, we searched the genomes of diverse animals occupying key phylogenetic positions for homologs of experimentally verified human, fly, and worm miRNAs. We identify 30 miRNAs conserved across bilaterians, almost double the previous estimate. We hypothesize that this larger than previously realized core set of miRNAs was already present in the ancestor of all Bilateria and likely had key roles in allowing the evolution of diverse specialist cell types, tissues, and complex morphology. In agreement with this hypothesis, we found only three, conserved miRNA families in the genome of the sea anemone Nematostella vectensis and no convincing family members in the genome of the demosponge Reniera sp. The dramatic expansion of the miRNA repertoire in bilaterians relative to sponges and cnidarians suggests that increased miRNA-mediated gene regulation accompanied the emergence of triploblastic organ-containing body plans.