microRNAs (miRNAs) are small noncoding RNAs that mediate post-transcriptional gene regulation and have emerged as essential regulators of many developmental events. The transcriptional network during early embryogenesis of the purple sea urchin, Strongylocentrotus purpuratus, is well described and can serve as an excellent model to test functional contributions of miRNAs in embryogenesis. We examined the loss of function phenotypes of major components of the miRNA biogenesis pathway. Inhibition of de novo synthesis of Drosha and Dicer in the embryo led to consistent developmental defects, a failure to gastrulate, and embryonic lethality, including changes in the steady state levels of transcription factors and signaling molecules involved in germ layer specification. We annotated and profiled small RNA expression from the ovary and several early embryonic stages by deep sequencing followed by computational analysis. miRNAs as well as a large population of putative piRNAs (piwi-interacting RNAs) had dynamic accumulation profiles through early development. Defects in morphogenesis caused by loss of Drosha could be rescued with four miRNAs. Taken together our results indicate that post-transcriptional gene regulation directed by miRNAs is functionally important for early embryogenesis and is an integral part of the early embryonic gene regulatory network in S. purpuratus.
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