What are microRNAs?

MicroRNAs constitute a recently discovered class of non-coding RNAs that play key roles in the regulation of gene expression. Acting at the post-transcriptional level, these fascinating molecules may fine-tune the expression of as much as 30% of all mammalian protein-encoding genes. 

Mature microRNAs are short, single-stranded RNA molecules approximately 22 nucleotides in length. MicroRNAs are sometimes encoded by multiple loci, some of which are organized in tandemly co-transcribed clusters. 

Transcription and processing of microRNA

MicroRNA genes are transcribed by RNA polymerase II as large primary transcripts (pri-microRNA) that are processed by a protein complex containing the RNase III enzyme Drosha, to form an approximately 70 nucleotide precursor microRNA (pre-microRNA). This precursor is subsequently transported to the cytoplasm where it is processed by a second RNase III enzyme, DICER, to form a mature microRNA of approximately 22 nucleotides (Figure 1). The mature microRNA is then incorporated into a ribonuclear particle to form the RNA-induced silencing complex, RISC, which mediates gene silencing. 

Figure 1 
MicroRNA biogenesis. (Click for a larger image)

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