BACKGROUND: Phylogenetically related miRNAs (miRNA families) convey important information of the function and evolution of miRNAs. Due to the special sequence features of miRNAs, pair-wise sequence identity between miRNA precursors alone is often inadequate for unequivocally judging the phylogenetic relationships between miRNAs. Most of the current methods for miRNA classification rely heavily on manual inspection and lack measurements of the reliability of the results. RESULTS: In this study, we designed an analysis pipeline (the Phylogeny-Bootstrap-Cluster (PBC) pipeline) to identify miRNA families based on branch stability in the bootstrap trees derived from overlapping genome-wide miRNA sequence sets. We tested the PBC analysis pipeline with the miRNAs from six animal species, H. sapiens, M. musculus, G. gallus, D. rerio, D. melanogaster, and C. elegans. The resulting classification was compared with the miRNA families defined in miRBase. The two classifications were largely consistent. CONCLUSION: The PBC analysis pipeline is an efficient method for classifying large numbers of heterogeneous miRNA sequences. It requires minimum human involvement and provides measurements of the reliability of the classification results.
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