MicroRNAs (miRNAs) are small, non-coding RNAs that regulate the expression of target mRNAs in plant growth, development, abiotic stress responses, and pathogen responses. Cold stress is one of the most common abiotic factors affecting plants, and it adversely affects plant growth, development, and spatial distribution. To understand the roles of miRNAs under cold stress in Populus tomentosa, we constructed two small RNA libraries from plantlets treated or not with cold conditions (4°C for 8 h). High-throughput sequencing of the two libraries identified 144 conserved miRNAs belonging to 33 miRNA families and 29 new miRNAs (as well as their corresponding miRNA(∗)s) belonging to 23 miRNA families. Differential expression analysis showed that 21 miRNAs were down-regulated and nine miRNAs were up-regulated in response to cold stress. Among them, 19 cold-responsive miRNAs, two new miRNAs and their corresponding miRNA(∗)s were validated by qRT-PCR. A total of 101 target genes of the new miRNAs were predicted using a bioinformatics approach. These target genes are involved in growth and resistance to various stresses. The results demonstrated that Populus miRNAs play critical roles in the cold stress response.
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