Evolutionary emergence of microRNAs in human embryonic stem cells

Hong Cao, Chao-shun Yang, Tariq M Rana
PloS One 2008, 3 (7): e2820
Human embryonic stem (hES) cells have unique abilities to divide indefinitely without differentiating and potential to differentiate into more than 200 cell types. These properties make hES cells an ideal model system for understanding early human development and for regenerative medicine. Molecular mechanisms including cellular signaling and transcriptional regulation play important roles in hES cell differentiation. However, very little information is available on posttranscriptional regulation of hES cell pluripotency, self-renewal, and early decisions about cell fate. microRNAs (miRNAs), 22-nt long non-coding small RNAs found in plants and animals, regulate gene expression by targeting mRNAs for cleavage or translation repression. In hES cells we found that 276 miRNAs were expressed; of these, a set of 30 miRNAs had significantly changed expression during differentiation. Using a representative example, miR-302b, we show that miRNAs in human ES cells assemble into a bona fide RISC that contains Ago2 and can specifically cleave perfectly matched target RNA. Our results demonstrate that human ES cell differentiation is accompanied by changes in the expression of a unique set of miRNAs, providing a glimpse of a new molecular circuitry that may regulate early development in humans. Chromosomes 19 and X contained 98 and 40 miRNA genes, respectively, indicating that majority of miRNA genes in hES cells were expressed from these two chromosomes. Strikingly, distribution analysis of miRNA gene loci across six species including dog, rat, mouse, rhesus, chimpanzee, and human showed that miRNA genes encoded in chromosome 19 were drastically increased in chimpanzees and humans while miRNA gene loci on other chromosomes were decreased as compared with dog, rat, and mouse. Comparative genomic studies showed 99% conservation of chromosome 19 miRNA genes between chimpanzees and humans. Together, these findings reveal the evolutionary emergence, approximately 5 million years ago, of miRNAs involved in regulating early human development. One could imagine that this burst of miRNA gene clusters at specific chromosomes was part of an evolutionary event during species divergence.

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