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PLoS Genet. 2014 Mar 13;10(3):e1004232. doi: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1004232. eCollection 2014 Mar.

Determinants beyond both complementarity and cleavage govern microR159 efficacy in Arabidopsis.

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Research School of Biology, Australian National University, Acton, Australian Capital Territory, Australia.


Plant microRNAs (miRNAs) are critical regulators of gene expression, however little attention has been given to the principles governing miRNA silencing efficacy. Here, we utilize the highly conserved Arabidopsis miR159-MYB33/MYB65 regulatory module to explore these principles. Firstly, we show that perfect central complementarity is not required for strong silencing. Artificial miR159 variants with two cleavage site mismatches can potently silence MYB33/MYB65, fully complementing a loss-of-function mir159 mutant. Moreover, these miR159 variants can cleave MYB33/MYB65 mRNA, however cleavage appears attenuated, as the ratio of cleavage products to full length transcripts decreases with increasing central mismatches. Nevertheless, high levels of un-cleaved MYB33/MYB65 transcripts are strongly silenced by a non-cleavage mechanism. Contrary to MIR159a variants that strongly silenced endogenous MYB33/MYB65, artificial MYB33 variants with central mismatches to miR159 are not efficiently silenced. We demonstrate that differences in the miRNA:target mRNA stoichiometry underlie this paradox. Increasing miR159 abundance in the MYB33 variants results in a strong silencing outcome, whereas increasing MYB33 transcript levels in the MIR159a variants results in a poor silencing outcome. Finally, we identify highly conserved nucleotides that flank the miR159 binding site in MYB33, and demonstrate that they are critical for efficient silencing, as mutation of these flanking nucleotides attenuates silencing at a level similar to that of central mismatches. This implies that the context in which the miRNA binding site resides is a key determinant in controlling the degree of silencing and that a miRNA "target site" encompasses sequences that extend beyond the miRNA binding site. In conclusion, our findings dismiss the notion that miRNA:target complementarity, underpinned by central matches, is the sole dictator of the silencing outcome.

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