MicroRNAs: From Mechanism to Organism

Philipp J. Dexheimer, Luisa Cochella

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


MicroRNAs (miRNAs) are short, regulatory RNAs that act as post-transcriptional repressors of gene expression in diverse biological contexts. The emergence of small RNA-mediated gene silencing preceded the onset of multicellularity and was followed by a drastic expansion of the miRNA repertoire in conjunction with the evolution of complexity in the plant and animal kingdoms. Along this process, miRNAs became an essential feature of animal development, as no higher metazoan lineage tolerated loss of miRNAs or their associated protein machinery. In fact, ablation of the miRNA biogenesis machinery or the effector silencing factors results in severe embryogenesis defects in every animal studied. In this review, we summarize recent mechanistic insight into miRNA biogenesis and function, while emphasizing features that have enabled multicellular organisms to harness the potential of this broad class of repressors. We first discuss how different mechanisms of regulation of miRNA biogenesis are used, not only to generate spatio-temporal specificity of miRNA production within an animal, but also to achieve the necessary levels and dynamics of expression. We then explore how evolution of the mechanism for small RNA-mediated repression resulted in a diversity of silencing complexes that cause different molecular effects on their targets. Multicellular organisms have taken advantage of this variability in the outcome of miRNA-mediated repression, with differential use in particular cell types or even distinct subcellular compartments. Finally, we present an overview of how the animal miRNA repertoire has evolved and diversified, emphasizing the emergence of miRNA families and the biological implications of miRNA sequence diversification. Overall, focusing on selected animal models and through the lens of evolution, we highlight canonical mechanisms in miRNA biology and their variations, providing updated insight that will ultimately help us understand the contribution of miRNAs to the development and physiology of multicellular organisms.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number409
JournalFrontiers in Cell and Developmental Biology
StatePublished - Jun 3 2020
Externally publishedYes


  • Argonaute
  • Dicer
  • Drosha
  • biogenesis
  • development
  • evolution
  • miRNA
  • silencing

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental Biology
  • Cell Biology


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