Noncanonical microRNA (miRNA) biogenesis gives rise to retroviral mimics of lymphoproliferative and immunosuppressive host miRNAs

mBio. 2014 Apr 8;5(2):e00074. doi: 10.1128/mBio.00074-14.


MicroRNAs (miRNAs) play regulatory roles in diverse processes in both eukaryotic hosts and their viruses, yet fundamental questions remain about which viruses code for miRNAs and the functions that they serve. Simian foamy viruses (SFVs) of Old World monkeys and apes can zoonotically infect humans and, by ill-defined mechanisms, take up lifelong infections in their hosts. Here, we report that SFVs encode multiple miRNAs via a noncanonical mode of biogenesis. The primary SFV miRNA transcripts (pri-miRNAs) are transcribed by RNA polymerase III (RNAP III) and take multiple forms, including some that are cleaved by Drosha. However, these miRNAs are generated in a context-dependent fashion, as longer RNAP II transcripts spanning this region are resistant to Drosha cleavage. This suggests that the virus may avoid any fitness penalty that could be associated with viral genome/transcript cleavage. Two SFV miRNAs share sequence similarity and functionality with notable host miRNAs, the lymphoproliferative miRNA miR-155 and the innate immunity suppressor miR-132. These results have important implications regarding foamy virus biology, viral miRNAs, and the development of retroviral-based vectors. IMPORTANCE Fundamental questions remain about which viruses encode miRNAs and their associated functions. Currently, few natural viruses with RNA genomes have been reported to encode miRNAs. Simian foamy viruses are retroviruses that are prevalent in nonhuman host populations, and some can zoonotically infect humans who hunt primates or work as animal caretakers. We identify a cluster of miRNAs encoded by SFV. Characterization of these miRNAs reveals evolutionarily conserved, unconventional mechanisms to generate small RNAs. Several SFV miRNAs share sequence similarity and functionality with host miRNAs, including the oncogenic miRNA miR-155 and innate immunity suppressor miR-132. Strikingly, unrelated herpesviruses also tap into one or both of these same regulatory pathways, implying relevance to a broad range of viruses. These findings provide new insights with respect to foamy virus biology and vectorology.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Host-Pathogen Interactions
  • MicroRNAs / biosynthesis*
  • Primates / virology*
  • RNA Polymerase III / metabolism
  • Sequence Homology
  • Simian foamy virus / genetics
  • Simian foamy virus / physiology*
  • Transcription, Genetic*


  • MicroRNAs
  • RNA Polymerase III