Background: MicroRNAs (miRNA) are an abundant and ubiquitous class of small RNAs that play prominent roles in gene regulation. A significant fraction of miRNA genes reside in the introns of the host genes in the same orientation and are thought to be co-processed from the host gene mRNAs and thus depend on the host gene promoter for their expression. However, several lines of evidence for independent expression of intronic miRNAs exist in the literature but the extent of this independence remains unclear. Results: We performed a systematic analysis of genomic regions surrounding intronic miRNAs in the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans and found that, in many cases, there are extended intronic sequences immediately upstream of the miRNAs that are well-conserved between the nematodes. We have generated transcriptional green fluorescent protein reporter fusions in transgenic C. elegans lines and demonstrated that, in all seven investigated cases, the conserved sequences show promoter properties and produce specific expression patterns that are different from the host gene expression patterns. The observed expression patterns are corroborated by the published small RNA sequencing data. Conclusions: Our analysis reveals that the number of intronic miRNAs that do not rely on their host genes for expression is substantially higher than previously appreciated. At least one-third of the same-strand intronic miRNAs in C. elegans posses their own promoters and, thus, could be transcribed independently from their host genes. These findings provide a new insight into the regulation of miRNA genes and will be useful for the analysis of interactions between miRNAs and their host genes.
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