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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

In silico genetic robustness analysis of microRNA secondary structures: potential evidence of congruent evolution in microRNA

Wenjie Shu12, Xiaochen Bo1*, Ming Ni1, Zhiqiang Zheng2 and Shengqi Wang1*

Author Affiliations

1 Beijing Institute of Radiation Medicine, Beijing 100850, China

2 College of Electro-Mechanic and Automation, National University of Defense Technology, Changsha, Hunan 410073, China

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2007, 7:223  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-7-223

Published: 13 November 2007

Abstract

Background

Robustness is a fundamental property of biological systems and is defined as the ability to maintain stable functioning in the face of various perturbations. Understanding how robustness has evolved has become one of the most attractive areas of research for evolutionary biologists, as it is still unclear whether genetic robustness evolved as a direct consequence of natural selection, as an intrinsic property of adaptations, or as congruent correlate of environment robustness. Recent studies have demonstrated that the stem-loop structures of microRNA (miRNA) are tolerant to some structural changes and show thermodynamic stability. We therefore hypothesize that genetic robustness may evolve as a correlated side effect of the evolution for environmental robustness.

Results

We examine the robustness of 1,082 miRNA genes covering six species. Our data suggest the stem-loop structures of miRNA precursors exhibit a significantly higher level of genetic robustness, which goes beyond the intrinsic robustness of the stem-loop structure and is not a byproduct of the base composition bias. Furthermore, we demonstrate that the phenotype of miRNA buffers against genetic perturbations, and at the same time is also insensitive to environmental perturbations.

Conclusion

The results suggest that the increased robustness of miRNA stem-loops may result from congruent evolution for environment robustness. Potential applications of our findings are also discussed.