BACKGROUND - microRNAs (miRNAs) are essential to the regulation of gene expression in eukaryotes, and improper expression of miRNAs contributes to hundreds of diseases. Despite the essential functions of miRNAs, the evolutionary dynamics of how they are integrated into existing gene regulatory and functional networks is not well understood. Knowledge of the origin and evolutionary history a gene has proven informative about its functions and disease associations; we hypothesize that incorporating the evolutionary origins of miRNAs into analyses will help resolve differences in their functional dynamics and how they influence disease.
RESULTS - We computed the phylogenetic age of miRNAs across 146 species and quantified the relationship between human miRNA age and several functional attributes. Older miRNAs are significantly more likely to be associated with disease than younger miRNAs, and the number of associated diseases increases with age. As has been observed for genes, the miRNAs associated with different diseases have different age profiles. For example, human miRNAs implicated in cancer are enriched for origins near the dawn of animal multicellularity. Consistent with the increasing contribution of miRNAs to disease with age, older miRNAs target more genes than younger miRNAs, and older miRNAs are expressed in significantly more tissues. Furthermore, miRNAs of all ages exhibit a strong preference to target older genes; 93% of validated miRNA gene targets were in existence at the origin of the targeting miRNA. Finally, we find that human miRNAs in evolutionarily related families are more similar in their targets and expression profiles than unrelated miRNAs.
CONCLUSIONS - Considering the evolutionary origin and history of a miRNA provides useful context for the analysis of its function. Consistent with recent work in Drosophila, our results support a model in which miRNAs increase their expression and functional regulatory interactions over evolutionary time, and thus older miRNAs have increased potential to cause disease. We anticipate that these patterns hold across mammalian species; however, comprehensively evaluating them will require refining miRNA annotations across species and collecting functional data in non-human systems.