Like protein-coding genes, loci that produce microRNAs (miRNAs) are generally considered to be under purifying selection, consistent with miRNA polymorphisms being able to cause disease. Nevertheless, it has been hypothesized that variation in miRNA genes may contribute to phenotypic diversity. Here we demonstrate that a naturally occurring polymorphism in the MIR164A gene affects leaf shape and shoot architecture in Arabidopsis thaliana, with the effects being modified by additional loci in the genome. A single base pair substitution in the miRNA complementary sequence alters the predicted stability of the miRNA:miRNA(∗) duplex. It thereby greatly reduces miRNA accumulation, probably because it interferes with precursor processing. We demonstrate that this is not a rare exception and that natural strains of Arabidopsis thaliana harbor dozens of similar polymorphisms that affect processing of a wide range of miRNA precursors. Our results suggest that natural variation in miRNA biogenesis resulting from cis mutations is a common contributor to phenotypic variation in plants.
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