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Conserved temporal patterns of microRNA expression in Drosophila support a developmental hourglass model.


The spatiotemporal control of gene expression is crucial for the successful completion of animal development. The evolutionary constraints on development are particularly strong for the mid-embryonic stage when body segments are specified, as evidenced by a high degree of morphological and protein-coding gene conservation during this period--a phenomenon known as the developmental hourglass. The discovery of microRNA-mediated gene control revealed an entirely new layer of complexity of the molecular networks that orchestrate development. However, the constraints on microRNA developmental expression and evolution, and the implications for animal evolution are less well understood. To systematically explore the conservation of microRNAs during development, we carried out a genome-wide comparative study of microRNA expression levels throughout the ontogenesis of two divergent fruit flies, Drosophila melanogaster and D. virilis. We show that orthologous microRNAs display highly similar temporal profiles regardless of their mutation rates, suggesting that the timely expression of microRNA genes can be more constrained than their sequence. Furthermore, transitions between key developmental events in the different species are accompanied by conserved shifts in microRNA expression profiles, with the mid-embryonic period between gastrulation and segmentation characterized by the highest similarity of microRNA expression. The conservation of microRNA expression therefore displays an hourglass pattern similar to that observed for protein-coding genes.

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