MicroRNAs (miRNAs) regulate the expression of a large number of protein-coding genes. Their primary transcripts (pri-miRNAs) have to undergo multiple processing steps to reach the functional form. Little is known about how the processing of miRNAs is modulated. Here we show that the RNA-binding protein DiGeorge critical region-8 (DGCR8), which is essential for the first processing step, is a heme-binding protein. The association with heme promotes dimerization of DGCR8. The heme-bound DGCR8 dimer seems to trimerize upon binding pri-miRNAs and is active in triggering pri-miRNA cleavage, whereas the heme-free monomer is much less active. A heme-binding region of DGCR8 inhibits the pri-miRNA-processing activity of the monomer. This putative autoinhibition is overcome by heme. Our finding that heme is involved in pri-miRNA processing suggests that the gene-regulation network of miRNAs and signal-transduction pathways involving heme might be connected.
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