In the timing of many developmental events is regulated by heterochronic genes. Such genes orchestrate the timing of cell divisions and fates appropriate for the developmental stage of an organism. Analyses of heterochronic mutations in the nematode have revealed a genetic pathway that controls the timing of post-embryonic cell divisions and fates. Two of the genes in this pathway encode small regulatory RNAs. The 22 nucleotide (nt) RNAs downregulate the expression of protein-coding mRNAs of target heterochronic genes. Analogous variations in the timing of appearance of particular features have been noted among closely related species, suggesting that such explicit control of developmental timing may not be exclusive to . In fact, some of the genes that globally pattern the temporal progression of development, including one of the tiny RNA genes, are conserved and temporally regulated across much of animal phylogeny, suggesting that the molecular mechanisms of temporal control are ancient and universal. A very large family of tiny RNA genes called microRNAs, which are similar in structure to the heterochronic regulatory RNAs, have been detected in diverse animal species and are likely to be present in most metazoans. Functions of the newly discovered microRNAs are not yet known. Other examples of temporal programs during growth include the exquisitely choreographed temporal sequences of developmental fates in neurogenesis in and the sequential programs of epidermal coloration in insect wing patterning. An interesting possibility is that microRNAs mediate transitions on a variety of time scales to pattern the activities of particular target protein-coding genes and in turn generate sets of cells over a period of time. Plasticity in these microRNA genes or their targets may lead to changes in relative developmental timing between related species, or heterochronic change. Instead of inventing new gene functions, even subtle changes in temporal expression of pre-existing control genes can result in speciation by altering the time at which they function.

Keyword(s): C. eleganslet-7lin-4miRNAsstRNAs

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  • Article Type: Review Article
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