Background: MicroRNA (miRNA) is a class of small RNAs of ~22nt which play essential roles in many crucial biological processes and numerous human diseases at post-transcriptional level of gene expression. It has been revealed that miRNA genes tend to be clustered, and the miRNAs organized into one cluster are usually transcribed coordinately. This implies a coordinated regulation mode exerted by clustered miRNAs. However, how the clustered miRNAs coordinate their regulations on large scale gene expression is still unclear.
Results: We constructed the miRNA-transcription factor regulatory network that contains the interactions between transcription factors (TFs), miRNAs and non-TF protein-coding genes, and made a genome-wide study on the regulatory coordination of clustered miRNAs. We found that there are two types of miRNA clusters, i.e. homo-clusters that contain miRNAs of the same family and hetero-clusters that contain miRNAs of various families. In general, the homo-clustered as well as the hetero-clustered miRNAs both exhibit coordinated regulation since the miRNAs belonging to one cluster tend to be involved in the same network module, which performs a relatively isolated biological function. However, the homo-clustered miRNAs show a direct regulatory coordination that is realized by one-step regulation (i.e. the direct regulation of the coordinated targets), whereas the hetero-clustered miRNAs show an indirect regulatory coordination that is realized by a regulation comprising at least three steps (e.g. the regulation on the coordinated targets by a miRNA through a sequential action of two TFs). The direct and indirect regulation target different categories of genes, the former predominantly regulating genes involved in emergent responses, the latter targeting genes that imply long-term effects.
Conclusion: The genomic clustering of miRNAs is closely related to the coordinated regulation in the gene regulatory network. The pattern of regulatory coordination is dependent on the composition of the miRNA cluster. The homo-clustered miRNAs mainly coordinate their regulation rapidly, while the hetero-clustered miRNAs exert control with a delay. The diverse pattern of regulatory coordination suggests distinct roles of the homo-clustered and the hetero-clustered miRNAs in biological processes.