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Specific changes to non-coding RNA may be part of what makes us human

May 09, 2016

Human-specific variants of four microRNAs may have altered expression levels and gene targets compared to other great apes, according to a study published April 22, 2016 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Alicia Gallego from the Institute of Evolutionary Biology, Spain, and colleagues.

MicroRNAs are post-transcriptional gene regulators known to be involved in almost every biological function. They are highly conserved among species and, while some differences exist, the effect of the variations is often unclear. The authors of the present study analysed over 1500 microRNAs to identify variations between humans and other great ape species, including orangutans, gorillas, bonobos and chimpanzees, and the possible effect of these variations on function.

The authors found that changes in the sequence and length of four microRNAs may be specific to humans. Two were highly expressed in brain tissue and may exert effects on genes with neural functions, while two exhibit restricted expression patterns that the authors posited implied a role in development. The authors also found that "age" might matter; in an evolutionary sense, "younger" microRNAs had less sequence conservation, expression and disease association, and were more isolated than "older" microRNAs.

The authors suggest this study may aid in our understanding of how non-coding elements may have played a role in shaping some traits that ultimately became human-specific. They also hope that it provides a framework to study the possible impact of these changes on recent human evolution.
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Citation: Gallego A, Melé M, Balcells I, García-Ramallo E, Torruella-Loran I, Fernández-Bellon H, et al. (2016) Functional Implications of Human-Specific Changes in Great Ape microRNAs. PLoS ONE 11(4): e0154194. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0154194

Funding: This work was funded by Spanish National Institute for Bioinformatics; "Ministerio de Ciencia e Innovación de España" [grant numbers BFU2012-38236, BFU2010-18477, BFU2009-06974, CGL2009-09013 and FPI-MINECO to ITL]; "Direcció General de Recerca de la Generalitat de Catalunya" [2009SGR-1101, 2014SGR-866 and SGR2014-1311]; European Union Seventh Framework Programme [grant number PIOF-GA-2009-236836 and PIRSES-GA-2013-612583]; "Ministerio de Educación, Cultura y Deporte de España" [grant FPU-MEC to AG]; FEDER European Regional Development Fund "A way to build Europe". Three authors of this work were employed by the funding organizations of either the "Parc Zoológic de Barcelona" or the Copenhagen Zoo. The funder "Parc Zoológic de Barcelona" provided support in the form of salaries for authors HFB and TA and the funder Copenhagen Zoo for author CH, but did not have any additional role in the study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript. The specific roles of these authors are articulated in the 'author contributions' section. The unique role of "Parc Zoológic de Barcelona" and Copenhagen Zoo was to provide support in the form of salaries for authors HFB, TA and CH. These funders did not have any additional role in the study design, data collection and analysis, decisionto publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Competing Interests: The authors declare that "Parc Zoològic de Barcelona" and Copenhagen Zoo participations do not alter our adherence to PLOS ONE policies on sharing data and materials.


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