Small RNAs (sRNAs), largely known as microRNAs (miRNAs) and short interfering RNAs (siRNAs), emerged as the critical components of genetic and epigenetic regulation in eukaryotic genomes. In animals, a sizable portion of miRNAs reside within the introns of protein-coding genes, designated as mirtron genes. Recently, high-throughput sequencing (HTS) revealed a huge amount of sRNAs that derived from introns in plants, such as the monocot rice (Oryza sativa). However, the biogenesis and the biological functions of this kind of sRNAs remain elusive. Here, we performed a genome-scale survey of intron-derived sRNAs in rice based on HTS data. Several introns were found to have great potential to form internal hairpin structures, and the short hairpins could generate miRNAs while the larger ones could produce siRNAs. Furthermore, 22 introns, termed "sirtrons," were identified from the rice protein-coding genes. The single-stranded sirtrons produced a diverse set of siRNAs from long hairpin structures. These sirtron-derived siRNAs are dominantly 21 nt, 22 nt, and 24 nt in length, whose production relied on DCL4, DCL2, and DCL3, respectively. We also observed a strong tendency for the sirtron-derived siRNAs to be coexpressed with their host genes. Finally, the 24-nt siRNAs incorporated with Argonaute 4 (AGO4) could direct DNA methylation on their host genes. In this regard, homeostatic self-regulation between intron-derived siRNAs and their host genes was proposed.
School of Life Sciences, Nanjing University
Nanjing 210023, China