Background: MicroRNAs (miRNAs) constitute a class of single-stranded RNAs which play a crucial role in regulating development and controlling gene expression by targeting mRNAs and triggering either translation repression or messenger RNA (mRNA) degradation. miRNAs are widespread in eukaryotes and to date over 14,000 miRNAs have been identified by computational and experimental approaches. Several miRNAs are highly conserved across species. In Schistosoma, the full set of miRNAs and their expression patterns during development remain poorly understood. Here we report on the development and implementation of a homology-based detection strategy to search for miRNA genes in Schistosoma mansoni. In addition, we report results on the experimental detection of miRNAs by means of cDNA cloning and sequencing of size-fractionated RNA samples.Results: Homology search using the high-throughput pipeline was performed with all known miRNAs in miRBase. A total of 6,211 mature miRNAs were used as reference sequences and 110 unique S. mansoni sequences were returned by BLASTn analysis. The existing mature miRNAs that produced these hits are reported, as well as the locations of the homologous sequences in the S. mansoni genome. All BLAST hits aligned with at least 95% of the miRNA sequence, resulting in alignment lengths of 19-24 nt. Following several filtering steps, 15 potential miRNA candidates were identified using this approach. By sequencing small RNA cDNA libraries from adult worm pairs, we identified 211 novel miRNA candidates in the S. mansoni genome. Northern blot analysis was used to detect the expression of the 30 most frequent sequenced miRNAs and to compare the expression level of these miRNAs between the lung stage schistosomula and adult worm stages. Expression of 11 novel miRNAs was confirmed by northern blot analysis and some presented a stage-regulated expression pattern. Three miRNAs previously identified from S. japonicum were also present in S. mansoni.Conclusion: Evidence for the presence of miRNAs in S. mansoni is presented. The number of miRNAs detected by homology-based computational methods in S. mansoni is limited due to the lack of close relatives in the miRNA repository. In spite of this, the computational approach described here can likely be applied to the identification of pre-miRNA hairpins in other organisms. Construction and analysis of a small RNA library led to the experimental identification of 14 novel miRNAs from S. mansoni through a combination of molecular cloning, DNA sequencing and expression studies. Our results significantly expand the set of known miRNAs in multicellular parasites and provide a basis for understanding the structural and functional evolution of miRNAs in these metazoan parasites.
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