MicroRNAs (miRNAs) are key regulators of gene expression. A handful of miRNAs are broadly conserved in land plants, while the majority are lineage specific; this review describes the processes by which new miRNAs are hypothesized to have emerged. Two major models describe miRNA origins, firstly, de novo emergence via inverted duplication of target gene fragments, and secondly, the expansion and neofunctionalization of existing miRNA families. The occasional acquisition of target sites by previously un-targeted genes adds further dynamism to the process by which miRNAs may shift roles during evolution. Additional factors guiding miRNA evolution include functional constraints on their length and the importance of precursor conservation that is observed in regions above or below the mature miRNA duplex; these regions represent recognition sites for components of biogenesis machinery and direct precursor processing. Insights into the mechanisms of miRNA emergence and divergence are important for understanding plant genome evolution and the impact of miRNA regulatory networks.
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