MicroRNAs (miRNAs) are short regulatory RNAs processed from partially self-complementary foldbacks within longer MIRNA primary transcripts. Several MIRNA families are conserved deeply through land plants, but many are present only in closely related species or are species specific. The finding of numerous evolutionarily young MIRNA , many with low expression and few if any targets, supports a rapid birth-death model for MIRNA evolution. A systematic analysis of MIRNA genes and families in the close relatives, Arabidopsis thaliana and Arabidopsis lyrata , was conducted using both whole-genome comparisons and high-throughput sequencing of small RNAs. Orthologs of 143 A. thaliana MIRNA genes were identified in A. lyrata , with nine having significant sequence or processing changes that likely alter function. In addition, at least 13% of MIRNA genes in each species are unique, despite their relatively recent speciation (∼10 million years ago). Alignment of MIRNA foldbacks to the Arabidopsis genomes revealed evidence for recent origins of 32 families by inverted or direct duplication of mostly protein-coding gene sequences, but less than half of these yield miRNA that are predicted to target transcripts from the originating gene family. miRNA nucleotide divergence between A. lyrata and A. thaliana orthologs was higher for young MIRNA genes, consistent with reduced purifying selection compared with deeply conserved MIRNA genes. Additionally, target sites of younger miRNA were lost more frequently than for deeply conserved families. In summary, our systematic analyses emphasize the dynamic nature of the MIRNA complement of plant genomes.
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