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Unicellular microRNA Discovery

05/15/2007
From Genes & Development May 15th Issue - to be published Online Ahead of Print
Embargoed Until 5pm EST on 4.29:

Unicellular microRNA Discovery

In the May 15th issue of Genes & Development, an international collaboration of researchers, led by Dr. Yijun Qi (National Institute of Biological Sciences, China), report on their discovery of microRNAs in the unicellular green alga, Chlamydomonas reinhardtii. This is the first finding of microRNAs in a unicellular organism.

“The finding changes the dogma that miRNAs only exist in multicellular organisms, and adds an important piece into the blooming small RNA world. A pressing question we have now is what these miRNAs are exactly doing in the green alga. I hope we will know the answers soon,” says Dr. Qi.

MicroRNAs (miRNAs) are a class of conserved, approximately 21-nucleotide long RNAs that regulate the expression of genes by either cleaving complementary mRNA targets or repressing their translation. MiRNAs have been identified in both plants and animals, acting as key regulators of multicellular development.

Dr. Qi and colleagues now extend the range of miRNAs into unicellular organisms, with their discovery of a large number of miRNAs in green algae. The researchers showed that unicellular miRNAs share functional characteristics with plants miRNAs, in so far as they can direct the cleavage of target mRNAs in vitro and in vivo. Furthermore, they found that miRNA expression patterns changed during gamete differentiation, suggesting a possible role in regulating sexual reproduction.

The discovery of miRNAs in a unicellular organism has evolutionary implications as well. While the existence of miRNAs in unicellular and multicellular organisms suggests that the miRNA pathway arose before these lineages split, the lack of universally conserved miRNA genes in algae, plants and animals suggests that they may have evolved independently.


Linking DNA and Histone Methylation

In the May 15th issue of G&D, Dr. Michael Carey (UCLA's Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center) and colleagues lend new insight into the mechanism of epigenetic silencing of euchromatic genes.

Dr. Carey emphasizes that "The study provides a new direction to understand how histone and DNA methylation, two phenomena that play a significant role in stem cell differentiation and cancer, can communicate with each other to turn genes off."

Although both histone and DNA methylation have long been recognized as hallmarks of euchromatic gene silencing, how these two processes cooperate to induce silencing has remained unresolved. In their upcoming paper, Dr. Carey and colleagues detail that mammalian HP1 proteins facilitate this cooperation.

They found that HP1 proteins, which bind to methylated histones, also interact with the DNA methyltransferase, DNMT1, to stimulate its DNA methylation activity. DNMT1, in turn, reinforced HP1 binding to methylated histones. Finally, the researchers showed that DNMT1-stimulated HP1 binding is required for gene silencing.


Genes & Development is a publication of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press. The Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory is a private, non-profit, basic research and educational institution. Scientists at the Laboratory conduct groundbreaking research in cancer, neurobiology, plant molecular genetics, genomics and bioinformatics. The Laboratory is recognized internationally for its educational activities, which include an extensive program of scientific meetings and courses that attract more than 8000 scientists to the campus each year. For more information about the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, visit http://www.cshl.org or call the Department of Public Affairs at (516) 367-8455.

Contact:
Heather Cosel-Pieper
Genes & Development
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
tel. (516) 422-4018
fax (516) 422-4093



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