Background: MicroRNAs (miRNAs) are about 22 nucleotide (nt) endogenous small RNAs that negatively regulate gene expression. They are a recently described class of regulatory molecules that has biological implications for tumorigenesis, development, metabolism and viral diseases. To date, 533 miRNAs have been identified in human. However, only 71 miRNAs have been reported in rhesus macaque. The rhesus is widely used in medical research because of its genetic and physiological similarity to human. The rhesus shares approximately 93% similarity with human in genome sequences and miRNA genes are evolutionarily conserved. Therefore, we searched the rhesus genome for sequences similar to human miRNA precursor sequences to identify putative rhesus miRNA genes.
Results: In addition to 71 miRNAs previously reported, we identified 383 novel miRNA genes in the rhesus genome. We compared the total 454 miRNAs identified so far in rhesus to human homologs, 173 miRNA genes showed 100% homology in precursor sequences between rhesus and human; The remaining 281 show more than 90%, less than 100% homology in precursor sequences. Some miRNAs in the rhesus genome are present as clusters similar to human, such as miR-371/373, miR-367/302b, miR-17/92, or have multiple copies distributed in the same or different chromosomes. RT-PCR analysis of expression of eight rhesus miRNA genes in rhesus tissues demonstrated tissue-specific regulation of expression.
Conclusion: Identification of miRNA genes in rhesus will provide the resources for analysis of expression profiles in various tissues by creating a rhesus miRNA array, which is currently not available for this species. Investigation of rhesus miRNAs will also expand our understanding of their biological function through miRNA knockout, knockdown or overexpression.