The unicellular alga Chlamydomonas reinhardtii contains many types of small RNAs (sRNAs) but the biological role(s) of bona fide microRNAs (miRNAs) remains unclear. To address their possible function(s) in responses to nutrient availability, we examined miRNA expression in cells cultured under different trophic conditions (mixotrophic in the presence of acetate or photoautotrophic in the presence or absence of nitrogen). We also reanalyzed miRNA expression data in Chlamydomonas subject to sulfur or phosphate deprivation. Several miRNAs were differentially expressed under the various trophic conditions. However, in transcriptome analyses, the majority of their predicted targets did not show expected changes in transcript abundance, suggesting that they are not subject to miRNA-mediated RNA degradation. Mutant strains, defective in sRNAs or in ARGONAUTE3 (a key component of sRNA-mediated gene silencing), did not display major phenotypic defects when grown under multiple nutritional regimes. Additionally, Chlamydomonas miRNAs were not conserved, even in algae of the closely related Volvocaceae family, and many showed features resembling those of recently evolved, species-specific miRNAs in the genus Arabidopsis. Our results suggest that, in C. reinhardtii, miRNAs might be subject to relatively fast evolution and have only a minor, largely modulatory role in gene regulation under diverse trophic states.
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