An interplay of miRNA abundance and target site architecture determines miRNA activity and specificity

Nucleic Acids Res. 2018 Apr 20;46(7):3259-3269. doi: 10.1093/nar/gky201.


MicroRNAs often occur in families whose members share an identical 5' terminal 'seed' sequence. The seed is a major determinant of miRNA activity, and family members are thought to act redundantly on target mRNAs with perfect seed matches, i.e. sequences complementary to the seed. However, recently sequences outside the seed were reported to promote silencing by individual miRNA family members. Here, we examine this concept and the importance of miRNA specificity for the robustness of developmental gene control. Using the let-7 miRNA family in Caenorhabditis elegans, we find that seed match imperfections can increase specificity by requiring extensive pairing outside the miRNA seed region for efficient silencing and that such specificity is needed for faithful worm development. In addition, for some target site architectures, elevated miRNA levels can compensate for a lack of complementarity outside the seed. Thus, some target sites require higher miRNA concentration for silencing than others, contrasting with a traditional binary distinction between functional and non-functional sites. We conclude that changing miRNA concentrations can alter cellular miRNA target repertoires. This diversifies possible biological outcomes of miRNA-mediated gene regulation and stresses the importance of target validation under physiological conditions to understand miRNA functions in vivo.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • 5' Untranslated Regions / genetics
  • Animals
  • Base Pairing
  • Binding Sites / genetics
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / genetics*
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / growth & development
  • Gene Expression Regulation / genetics
  • MicroRNAs / genetics*
  • RNA, Messenger / genetics*


  • 5' Untranslated Regions
  • MicroRNAs
  • RNA, Messenger
  • let-7 microRNA, C elegans