Background: MicroRNAs (miRNAs) are small, non-coding RNA molecules that play a key role in gene regulation in both plants and animals. MicroRNA biogenesis involves the enzymatic processing of a primary RNA transcript. The final step is the production of a duplex molecule, often designated as miRNA:miRNA*, that will yield a functional miRNA by separation of the two strands. This miRNA will be incorporated into the RNA-induced silencing complex, which subsequently will bind to its target mRNA in order to suppress its expression. The analysis of miRNAs is still a developing area for computational biology with many open questions regarding the structure and function of this important class of molecules. Here, we present StarSeeker, a simple tool that outputs the putative miRNA* sequence given the precursor and the mature sequences.
Results: We evaluated StarSeeker using a dataset consisting of all plant sequences available in miRBase (6992 precursor sequences and 8496 mature sequences). The program returned a total of 15,468 predicted miRNA* sequences. Of these, 2650 sequences were matched to annotated miRNAs (~ 90% of the miRBase-annotated sequences). The remaining predictions could not be verified, mainly because they do not comply with the rule requiring the two overhanging nucleotides in the duplex molecule.
Conclusions: The expression pattern of some miRNAs in plants can be altered under various abiotic stress conditions. Potential miRNA* molecules that do not degrade can thus be detected and also discovered in high-throughput sequencing data, helping us to understand their role in gene regulation.
Keywords: Plant transcriptome; Sequence prediction; Transcription regulation; miRNA maturation.