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Trends Biochem Sci. 2004 Sep;29(9):462-8.

Common logic of transcription factor and microRNA action.

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Columbia University Medical Center, Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biophysics, Center for Neurobiology and Behavior, New York, NY 10032, USA.


Over the past few years, microRNAs (miRNAs) have emerged as abundant regulators of gene expression. Like many transcription factors (TFs), miRNAs are important determinants of cellular fate specification. Here I provide a conceptual framework for miRNA action in the context of creating cellular diversity in a developing organism, and emphasize the conceptual similarity of TF- and miRNA-mediated control of gene expression. Both TFs and miRNAs are trans-acting factors that exert their activity through composite cis-regulatory elements that are 'hard-wired' into DNA or RNA. TFs and miRNAs act in a largely combinatorial manner - that is, many different TFs or miRNAs control one gene - and they act cooperatively on their targets - that is, there are several cis-regulatory elements for a single TF or miRNA species in a target gene. Just as the set of TFs in a given cell type has been proposed to constitute a 'code' that specifies cellular differentiation, so 'miRNA codes' are likely to have conceptually similar roles in the specification of cell types.

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