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Open Access Research article

Correlation between sequence conservation and structural thermodynamics of microRNA precursors from human, mouse, and chicken genomes

Ming Ni12, Wenjie Shu2, Xiaochen Bo2, Shengqi Wang2* and Songgang Li1*

Author Affiliations

1 Center for Bioinformatics, National Laboratory of Protein Engineering and Plant Genetic Engineering, College of Life Sciences, Peking University, Beijing 100871, China

2 Beijing Institute of Radiation Medicine, Beijing 100850, China

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2010, 10:329  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-10-329

Published: 27 October 2010

Abstract

Background

Previous studies have shown that microRNA precursors (pre-miRNAs) have considerably more stable secondary structures than other native RNAs (tRNA, rRNA, and mRNA) and artificial RNA sequences. However, pre-miRNAs with ultra stable secondary structures have not been investigated. It is not known if there is a tendency in pre-miRNA sequences towards or against ultra stable structures? Furthermore, the relationship between the structural thermodynamic stability of pre-miRNA and their evolution remains unclear.

Results

We investigated the correlation between pre-miRNA sequence conservation and structural stability as measured by adjusted minimum folding free energies in pre-miRNAs isolated from human, mouse, and chicken. The analysis revealed that conserved and non-conserved pre-miRNA sequences had structures with similar average stabilities. However, the relatively ultra stable and unstable pre-miRNAs were more likely to be non-conserved than pre-miRNAs with moderate stability. Non-conserved pre-miRNAs had more G+C than A+U nucleotides, while conserved pre-miRNAs contained more A+U nucleotides. Notably, the U content of conserved pre-miRNAs was especially higher than that of non-conserved pre-miRNAs. Further investigations showed that conserved and non-conserved pre-miRNAs exhibited different structural element features, even though they had comparable levels of stability.

Conclusions

We proposed that there is a correlation between structural thermodynamic stability and sequence conservation for pre-miRNAs from human, mouse, and chicken genomes. Our analyses suggested that pre-miRNAs with relatively ultra stable or unstable structures were less favoured by natural selection than those with moderately stable structures. Comparison of nucleotide compositions between non-conserved and conserved pre-miRNAs indicated the importance of U nucleotides in the pre-miRNA evolutionary process. Several characteristic structural elements were also detected in conserved pre-miRNAs.