Background: microRNAs (miRNAs) are a highly abundant class of small noncoding regulatory RNAs that post-transcriptionally regulate gene expression in multicellular organisms. miRNAs are involved in a wide range of biological and physiological processes, including the regulation of host immune responses to microbial infections. Small-scale studies of miRNA expression in the malaria mosquito Anopheles gambiae have been reported, however no comprehensive analysis of miRNAs has been performed so far.
Results: Using small RNA sequencing, we characterized de novo A. gambiae miRNA repertoire expressed in adult sugar- and blood-fed females. We provided transcriptional evidences for 123 miRNAs, including 58 newly identified miRNAs. Out of the newly described miRNAs, 19 miRNAs are homologs to known miRNAs in other insect species and 17 miRNAs share sequence similarity restricted to the seed sequence. The remaining 21 novel miRNAs displayed no obvious sequence homology with known miRNAs. Detailed bioinformatics analysis of the mature miRNAs revealed a sequence variation occurring at their 5'-end and leading to functional seed shifting in more than 5% of miRNAs. We also detected significant sequence heterogeneity at the 3'-ends of the mature miRNAs, mostly due to imprecise processing and post-transcriptional modifications. Comparative analysis of arm-switching events revealed the existence of species-specific production of dominant mature miRNAs induced by blood feeding in mosquitoes. We also identified new conserved and fragmented miRNA clusters and A. gambiae-specific miRNA gene duplication. Using miRNA expression profiling, we identified the differentially expressed miRNAs at an early time point after regular blood feeding and after infection with the rodent malaria parasite Plasmodium berghei. Significant changes were detected in the expression levels of 4 miRNAs in blood-fed mosquitoes, whereas 6 miRNAs were significantly upregulated after P. berghei infection.
Conclusions: In the current study, we performed the first systematic analysis of miRNAs in A. gambiae. We provided new insights on mature miRNA sequence diversity and functional shifts in the mosquito miRNA evolution. We identified a set of the differentially expressed miRNAs that respond to normal and infectious blood meals. The extended set of Anopheles miRNAs and their isoforms provides a basis for further experimental studies of miRNA expression patterns and biological functions in A. gambiae.