Skip to main content
Biology LibreTexts

6.2.4: microRNAs

  • Page ID
  • Learning Objectives

    • Define microRNA and siRNA.
    • Briefly describe the mechanisms by which RNAi interference affects gene expression.
    • Predict the effect of a miRNA or siRNA that is fully or partially complementary to an mRNA. 


    MicroRNAs (miRNAs) are small (20-25 nucleotide) RNAs that are encoded by genomic loci. MicroRNAs were first discovered when scientists tried to identify the gene responsible for a heterochronic mutant (lin-4C. elegans in the early 1990s. The mutant had been identified nearly two decades prior as one in which the normal pattern of larval molting did not stop, instead adult worms continued to repeat larval patterns, hence the name meaning cell lineage-defective. The mutation turned out to be in a non-protein-coding region that produced a small RNA with partial complementarity to seven sites in the 3' UTR of the lin-14 RNA (Lee et al, 1993). Previous studies had shown that lin-4 was a negative regulator of lin-14, so this result revealed that the mechanism involved an RNA acting by repressing the another RNA! Further work in C. elegans revealed that another gene, let-7, also encodes a microRNA that regulates multiple target RNAs via RNA-RNA interactions. 

    complementary sequences pair while non complementary sequences bulge

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Potential RNA/RNA duplexes between let-7 and lin-41. The position of the let-7(n2853) mutation is shown by an arrow below the duplexes. (Copyright CC BY Vella and Slack via


    This work has led to the discovery of many more microRNAs in many different organisms. The current estimate of number of miRNAs in the human genome is about 2,300 (Alles et al., 2019). 


    Why are small RNAs important?

    The discovery of two non-coding RNAs in C. elegans turned out to be just the beginning of our understanding of the prevalence and activity of small RNAs. Two other C. elegans biologists, Andrew Fire and Craig Mello, were studying another aspect of RNA activity at the same time. They were following up on some research that had used antisense RNAs to inhibit the expression of certain genes. 


    Antisense RNA: the theory

    Remember that only one strand of a gene is transcribed into RNA.

    The mRNA contains the codons needed to make the correct protein so it makes SENSE, but it was transcribed using the ANTISENSE strand as a template.

    The ANTISENSE RNA does not usually exist in cells, but if you provide it, it will be complementary to the mRNA.

    The theory was that this would prevent the translation of the RNA. 


    The experiments of Fire and Mello revealed that injecting double-stranded RNA (dsRNA = sense RNA + antisense RNA) cause a more potent response than injecting antisense alone. They also demonstrated that the injected dsRNA caused a decrease in mRNA levels, not just protein levels that was predicted by the antisense RNA idea. The phenomenon of a small RNA that targets a cellular mRNA for degradation is known as RNA interference, and these small RNAs are known as siRNAs (small interfering RNAs). These typically differ from microRNAs in that they have perfect complementarity to their target genes and cause their destruction.


    Video \(\PageIndex{1}\): RNA interference (RNAi) is an important process, used by many different organisms to regulate the activity of genes. This animation explains how RNAi works and introduces the two main players: small interfering RNAs (siRNAs) and microRNAs (miRNAs). We take you on an audio-visual journey, diving into a cell to show how genes are transcribed to make messenger RNA (mRNA) and how RNAi can silence specific mRNAs to stop them from making proteins. The animation is based on the latest research, to give you an up-to-date view.. (RNA interference (RNAi): by Nature Video via


    Mechanism Overview

    The timely discovery of microRNAs and RNA interference by dsRNA revealed some shared mechanisms of action. Both microRNAs produced by transcription and siRNAs provided experimentally are cleaved into smaller (20-25 nt) fragments by the enzyme Dicer. The short pieces then are loaded to a RISC (RNA induced silencing complex), which contains a single-stranded small RNA while surveilling the cell for complementary sequences. When perfect (100%) complementarity is found, the target RNAs are cleaved; when imperfect complementarity is found, the outcome is often translation repression, although other effects are possible. 


    RNAi_overview wikicommons.png

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): An infographic overview of RNA interference (RNAi). (Copyright CC BY SA; Biochemlife via An infographic overview of RNA interference (RNAi))





    Fire, A., Xu, S., Montgomery, M. et al. Potent and specific genetic interference by double-stranded RNA in Caenorhabditis elegansNature 391, 806–811 (1998).

    Julia Alles, Tobias Fehlmann, Ulrike Fischer, Christina Backes, Valentina Galata, Marie Minet, Martin Hart, Masood Abu-Halima, Friedrich A Grässer, Hans-Peter Lenhof, Andreas Keller, Eckart Meese, An estimate of the total number of true human miRNAs, Nucleic Acids Research, Volume 47, Issue 7, 23 April 2019, Pages 3353–3364,

    Vella, M.C. and Slack, F.J. C. elegans microRNAs (September 21, 2005), WormBook, ed. The C. elegans Research Community, WormBook, doi/10.1895/wormbook.1.26.1,


    • Was this article helpful?