Gastrotrichs-'hairy bellies'-are microscopic free-living animals inhabiting marine and freshwater habitats. Based on morphological and early molecular analyses, gastrotrichs were placed close to nematodes, but recent phylogenomic analyses have suggested their close relationship to flatworms (Platyhelminthes) within Spiralia. Small non-coding RNA data on e.g., microRNAs (miRNAs) and PIWI-interacting RNAs (piRNA) may help to resolve this long-standing question. MiRNAs are short post-transcriptional gene regulators that together with piRNAs play key roles in development. In a 'multi-omics' approach we here used small-RNA sequencing, available transcriptome and genomic data to unravel the miRNA- and piRNA complements along with the RNAi (RNA interference) protein machinery of Lepidodermella squamata (Gastrotricha, Chaetonotida). We identified 52 miRNA genes representing 35 highly conserved miRNA families specific to Eumetazoa, Bilateria, Protostomia, and Spiralia, respectively, with overall high similarities to platyhelminth miRNA complements. In addition, we found four large piRNA clusters that also resemble flatworm piRNAs but not those earlier described for nematodes. Congruently, transcriptomic annotation revealed that the Lepidodermella protein machinery is highly similar to flatworms, too. Taken together, miRNA, piRNA, and protein data support a close relationship of gastrotrichs and flatworms.
Keywords: Gastrotricha; Lepidodermella squamata; Platyhelminthes; RNAi protein machinery; microRNAs; piRNAs.