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4 p.

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Current Biology

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In the race to understand microRNA (miRNA) functions in development and physiology, Caenorhabditis elegans investigators were the first out of the gate with the cloning and analysis of the lin-4 and let-7 miRNAs [1,2]. The starting point of strong, penetrant loss of function phenotypes facilitated these advancements. However, subsequent functional analysis of miRNAs in C. elegans was hampered by the lack of easily observable loss-of-function phenotypes [3]. There are several possible models to account for this observation. First, redundancy between related miRNAs can account for the absence of phenotypes in mutants missing individual miRNA genes [4,5]. Second, miRNAs may also function redundantly with unrelated miRNAs or other regulatory mechanisms. Third, identification of miRNA functions may require the analysis of specific cells during development, assays typically not included in initial broad phenotypic analyses. For example, the lsy-6 miRNA is an essential regulator of a chemosensory neuron cell fate in C. elegans [6]. Such a specialized function would not have been identified in broad phenotypic analyses. Finally, miRNAs may act to ‘fine-tune’ gene expression, to maintain protein levels of targets in an optimal range. Loss of this relatively minor regulatory input by miRNAs would not be expected to result in penetrant, observable defects under normal conditions. Recent work has analyzed the functions of individual miRNAs under conditions of environmental or physiological stress. With these approaches, functions for individual miRNAs, which remain elusive under normal growth conditions, have been uncovered. These stresses can be introduced through genetic mutations, environmental perturbations, or through the normal aging process. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that miRNAs act to ensure the robustness of developmental or physiological pathways [7].


Accepted version. Current Biology, Vol. 21, No. 17 (August 2011): R668–R671. DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2011.07.027. © 2011 Elsevier. Used with permission.

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