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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Inter- and intra-combinatorial regulation by transcription factors and microRNAs

Yiming Zhou1, John Ferguson2, Joseph T Chang2 and Yuval Kluger1*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Cell Biology, New York University School of Medicine, New York, New York 10016, USA

2 Department of Statistics, Yale University, New Haven, CT 06520, USA

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BMC Genomics 2007, 8:396  doi:10.1186/1471-2164-8-396

Published: 30 October 2007



MicroRNAs (miRNAs) are a novel class of non-coding small RNAs. In mammalian cells, miRNAs repress the translation of messenger RNAs (mRNAs) or degrade mRNAs. miRNAs play important roles in development and differentiation, and they are also implicated in aging, and oncogenesis. Predictions of targets of miRNAs suggest that they may regulate more than one-third of all genes. The overall functions of mammalian miRNAs remain unclear. Combinatorial regulation by transcription factors alone or miRNAs alone offers a wide range of regulatory programs. However, joining transcriptional and post-transcriptional regulatory mechanisms enables higher complexity regulatory programs that in turn could give cells evolutionary advantages. Investigating coordinated regulation of genes by miRNAs and transcription factors (TFs) from a statistical standpoint is a first step that may elucidate some of their roles in various biological processes.


Here, we studied the nature and scope of coordination among regulators from the transcriptional and miRNA regulatory layers in the human genome. Our findings are based on genome wide statistical assessment of regulatory associations ("interactions") among the sets of predicted targets of miRNAs and sets of putative targets of transcription factors. We found that combinatorial regulation by transcription factor pairs and miRNA pairs is much more abundant than the combinatorial regulation by TF-miRNA pairs. In addition, many of the strongly interacting TF-miRNA pairs involve a subset of master TF regulators that co-regulate genes in coordination with almost any miRNA. Application of standard measures for evaluating the degree of interaction between pairs of regulators show that strongly interacting TF-miRNA, TF-TF or miRNA-miRNA pairs tend to include TFs or miRNAs that regulate very large numbers of genes. To correct for this potential bias we introduced an additional Bayesian measure that incorporates not only how significant an interaction is but also how strong it is. Putative pairs of regulators selected by this procedure are more likely to have biological coordination. Importantly, we found that the probability of a TF-miRNA pair forming feed forward loops with its common target genes (where the miRNA simultaneously suppresses the TF and many of its targets) is increased for strongly interacting TF-miRNA pairs.


Genes are more likely to be co-regulated by pairs of TFs or pairs of miRNAs than by pairs of TF-miRNA, perhaps due to higher probability of evolutionary duplication events of shorter DNA sequences. Nevertheless, many gene sets are reciprocally regulated by strongly interacting pairs of TF-miRNA, which suggests an effective mechanism to suppress functionally related proteins. Moreover, the particular type of feed forward loop (with two opposing modes where the TF activates its target genes or the miRNA simultaneously suppresses this TF and the TF-miRNA joint target genes) is more prevalent among strongly interacting TF-miRNA pairs. This may be attributed to a process that prevents waste of cellular resources or a mechanism to accelerate mRNA degradation.