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Wiley Interdiscip Rev RNA. 2014 Mar-Apr;5(2):141-81. doi: 10.1002/wrna.1210. Epub 2013 Dec 5.

New perspectives on the diversification of the RNA interference system: insights from comparative genomics and small RNA sequencing.

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National Center for Biotechnology Information, National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD, USA.


Our understanding of the pervasive involvement of small RNAs in regulating diverse biological processes has been greatly augmented by recent application of deep-sequencing technologies to small RNA across diverse eukaryotes. We review the currently known small RNA classes and place them in context of the reconstructed evolutionary history of the RNA interference (RNAi) protein machinery. This synthesis indicates that the earliest versions of eukaryotic RNAi systems likely utilized small RNA processed from three types of precursors: (1) sense-antisense transcriptional products, (2) genome-encoded, imperfectly complementary hairpin sequences, and (3) larger noncoding RNA precursor sequences. Structural dissection of PIWI proteins along with recent discovery of novel families (including Med13 of the Mediator complex) suggest that emergence of a distinct architecture with the N-terminal domains (also occurring separately fused to endoDNases in prokaryotes) formed via duplication of an ancestral unit was key to their recruitment as primary RNAi effectors and use of small RNAs of certain preferred lengths. Prokaryotic PIWI proteins are typically components of several RNA-directed DNA restriction or CRISPR/Cas systems. However, eukaryotic versions appear to have emerged from a subset that evolved RNA-directed RNAi. They were recruited alongside RNaseIII domains and RNA-dependent RNA polymerase (RdRP) domains, also from prokaryotic systems, to form the core eukaryotic RNAi system. Like certain regulatory systems, RNAi diversified into two distinct but linked arms concomitant with eukaryotic nucleocytoplasmic compartmentalization. Subsequent elaboration of RNAi proceeded via diversification of the core protein machinery through lineage-specific expansions and recruitment of new components from prokaryotes (nucleases and small RNA-modifying enzymes), allowing for diversification of associating small RNAs.

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