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DNA Cell Biol. 2007 Apr;26(4):209-18.

Evolutionary conservation of microRNA regulatory circuits: an examination of microRNA gene complexity and conserved microRNA-target interactions through metazoan phylogeny.

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Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado 80309, USA.


During the last decade, a variety of critical biological processes, including early embryo development, cell proliferation, differentiation, apoptosis, and metabolic regularity, have been shown to be genetically regulated by a large gene family encoding a class of tiny RNA molecules termed microRNAs (miRNAs). All miRNAs share a common biosynthetic pathway and reaction mechanisms. The sequence of many miRNAs is found to be conserved, in their mature form, among different organisms. In addition, the evolutionary appearance of multicellular organisms appears to correlate with the appearance of the miRNA pathway for regulating gene expression. The miRNA pathway has the potential to regulate vast networks of gene products in a coordinate manner. Recent evidence has not only implicated the miRNA pathway in regulating a vast array of basic cellular processes but also specialized processes that are required for cellular identity and tissue specificity. A survey of the literature shows that some miRNA pathways are conserved virtually intact throughout phylogeny while miRNA diversity also correlates with speciation. The number of miRNA genes, the expression of miRNAs, and target diversities of miRNAs tend to be positively correlated with morphological complexities observed in animals. Thus, organismal complexity can be estimated by the complexity of the miRNA circuitry. The complexity of the miRNA gene families establishes a link between genotypic complexity and phenotypic complexity in animal evolution. In this paper, we start with the discussion of miRNA conservation. Then we interpret the trends in miRNA conservation to deduce miRNA evolutionary trends in metazoans. Based on these conservation patterns observed in each component of the miRNA regulatory system, we attempt to propose a global insight on the probable consistency between morphological evolution in animals and the molecular evolution of miRNA gene activity in the cell.

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